Part II – Imran Khan’s (IK’s) rising popularity
by Asif Haroon Raja
IK’s xenophobic vows to defeat all his political opponents, criticizing Gen Musharraf and ridiculing Gen Bajwa, threatening the state institutions, censuring the US, and promising to break the status quo, and make Pakistan a genuinely free country made his cult supporters euphoric. Placing him on the high pedestal of a Messiah, they once again got infatuated with his rosy promises of gaining true freedom, building a new Pakistan free of corruption, and other vices along the lines of Hazrat Umar’s model of governance.
IK’s rabble-rousing speeches delivered in the rallies have shredded the rule of law, and created an environment of distrust, extreme polarization, indiscipline, and lawlessness. IK’s populism is wedded to emphatic fascism.
With Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan in the loop of the PTI, and riding on a high wave of popularity, IK is convinced that victory with a two-thirds majority in the next elections is a foregone conclusion, and all other parties would be washed out.
The mania for early elections
The unprecedented devastations caused by torrential rains and heavy flash floods have ruined the lives of millions of people and need immediate relief and rehabilitation. Standing crops of wheat, rice and cotton have been destroyed.
The huge calamity has brought no change in the stance of IK who is stuck with his mania for early elections. He and his followers do not seem to be bothered by human tragedy.
Distrust in state institutions
For IK, early elections are the remedy to all the ailments, but he doesn’t trust the military, the judiciary, the Election Commissioner, FIA, or Police, and refuses to talk with the government, which he describes as a band of thieves.
With such a mindset, who will ensure free, fair, and transparent elections from within Pakistan? Would he like law enforcement agencies from abroad to maintain law and order at the polling booths, and a foreign team to come and conduct the idealistic elections? The foreigners would also fail due to hundreds of inherent flaws in the electoral system.
Since 2013, the PTI has pursued agitation to create political instability. During its rule (August 2018 to April 9, 2022), it sidelined the opposition and adopted a policy of confrontation and witch-hunting of opposition leaders. From April 12, 2022, onwards, it has continuously fueled political instability. Ironically, IK is now stating that elections would achieve political stability, not realizing that it cannot be achieved without rule of law. What if the PTI loses in the next elections? Would it accept the results and cooperate with the winning party?
No roadmap for future
The PTI has so far not spelled out what overhauling it has made in the previous plan, which failed to deliver. Will it be able to ensure financial discipline and how? What about the societal divides, acute political polarization, and fissures within the military to which PTI has contributed a great deal? So far, it is only grandiloquence and promises, and no road map has been given on how it would pull out of the country deeply stuck in the 75 years old mess.
Removal of misgivings
PTI is mending fences with the US, but the latter seems quite comfortable with the PM Shehbaz Sharif (SS) led coalition government. Biden warmly met him on his visit to the USA and promised support to Pakistan. With his rasping and impulsive style, will IK be able to remove the misgivings of the US, IMF, EU, China, and the Arab States?
Government in a muddle
The beleaguered government under SS confined to Islamabad only is fighting for survival. The inflation has crossed the figures of 27% which was experienced only once before in 1975. The rupee is continuing to devalue, prices of daily commodities are rising and the people are crying in agony.
The government has so far failed to stabilize the dwindling economy and provide relief to the people by controlling the rising inflation and lowering the prices of fuel, electricity, and daily commodities. In deference to the PTI-brokered IMF deal, prices of fuel were raised, which angered the people. It has given another handle to the PTI to beat the government and smear its reputation.
Pakistan’s financial crisis
The State Bank’s 48.3 billion is all borrowed reserves. Pakistan has a running Rs. 6 trillion budget deficit; its circular debt is Rs. 2.5 trillion; public sector enterprises owe a debt of Rs. 2 trillion; debt servicing is $17 billion; trade deficit is $50 billion.
Pakistan’s immediate needs are $17 billion to fill the current account deficit; $17 billion for debt servicing; $20 billion to buy petrol and diesel; $ one billion to buy wheat; $3 billion to buy cooking oil; $2 billion to buy coal to run the power plants; $ 3 billion to buy LNG; $2 billion to buy cotton and $10 billion to import machinery. It means $65 billion. Pakistan is heading towards a dollar crisis and financial liquidity crunch.
Floods in Pakistan could upturn SS’s fortunes
One-third of the country is under flood water. Some say that the colossal losses incurred have pushed back Pakistan by 50 years. It will require herculean efforts to provide shelter, food, drinking water, medicines, and basic needs to rehabilitate the floods-affected people. It will be another miracle if Pakistan sails out of the choppy waters and reaches the shores of safety unscathed.
For SS, floods could upturn his political fortunes. His diplomatic offensive has worked and he was affectionately received by the SCO leaders in the Summit in Uzbekistan, and by the world leaders in New York. The US, EU, UK, UN, Turkey, KSA, UAE, China, Russia, IMF, World Bank, Paris Club, and donors are sympathetic towards Pakistan and are keen to undo the climatic injustices by extending their help in rebuilding destroyed infrastructure and in the rehabilitation of the 33 million displaced persons. The world creditors seem inclined to reschedule payment of debt servicing.
India is the only country that has neither sympathized nor extended any assistance to the flood affected.
Change of Army leadership
The PTI leaders are eagerly waiting for the change in military command in late Nov this year, and are very hopeful that things would swing in their favor under the new COAS. Any new army chief is acceptable to IK except for Lt Gen Asim Munir, whom he had removed from the chair of DG ISI just six months after he took over in 2018. Gen Asim being the senior most is Nawaz Sharif’s (NS) favorite and the PDM leaders have given their consent.
Knowing that legally SS has the authority to appoint him, IK’s focus has suddenly shifted from early elections to the selection of the next chief and he has made it into a big issue. The protest call given by IK to launch the independence movement from 24 Sept onwards is not to topple the ruling regime but to refrain SS from selecting the army chief of his choice.
IK has floated the idea that the appointment of the new chief should be done by the next elected government and till then the present army chief should hang on. President Arif Alvi has stated that the new chief should be appointed with the consensus of all political parties.
Pushed against the wall, IK has become erratic. In a fit of anger, he throws prudence out of the window and starts lashing out at his opponents wildly. After lambasting the Establishment for its neutrality, and then accusing it of removing him from power, he is now saying that it is still involved in political engineering by making phone calls to PTI’s legislators from unknown numbers. He is worried about the future of the Punjab government in the wake of floating rumors that CM Pervez Elahi might be deposed through a vote of confidence.
IK then hastens to take a step backward after finding himself in a bind. He wants Gen Bajwa to continue serving till elections are organized by an interim set-up and the new government is installed. In other words, he wants elections not later than December/January 2023.
IK is giving a message to the world that Pakistan doesn’t need aid but immediate elections. At his behest, his former finance minister Shaukat Tareen advised the finance ministers of KP and Punjab to write to the IMF that their provinces wouldn’t be able to pay their share of money to repay loans. The purpose was to scuttle the IMF loan program. The IMF however has delivered the loan installment of $1.7 billion.
When IK was about to be indicted in a contempt case by the court on Sept 22 on account of using derogatory and misogynist remarks against a lady judge, IG and DIG Police, he tendered an apology and saved himself from arrest. The Pending Foreign Funding case and Toshakhana (foreign gifts) case are pregnant with prospects of his disqualification and disbandment of his party.
A slight change in posture
Failing to intimidate the government, IK is now showing signs of flexibility and is throwing feelers of holding a dialogue on issues of date of elections, electoral reforms, and appointment of a new army chief. IK now wants court cases against him and his party leaders to be withdrawn. In the wake of advice from the chief justice, the return of 123 MNAs of PTI to the National Assembly (NA) has become a possibility. But IK has made the return to NA conditional to conducting a proper probe over the alleged Donald Lu cipher conspiracy. President Alvi is also trying to patch up differences and to arrive at a political settlement.
Next wave of agitation
In order to negotiate from the position of strength, IK is continuing with his pressure tactics. He is claiming that, unlike the fiasco on 25 May, this time the marchers from Punjab and KP would come more prepared and they would rock the boat of the imported regime. The government is also well-prepared to confront the agitators with full force. The interior minister has vowed that at no cost any of the protesters will be allowed to enter Isbd. Plans have been made to arrest IK if he makes an entry into Isbd. The possibility of the clash between the two rivals becoming bloody cannot be ruled out.
The pendulum of power has once again shifted towards the courts which are deeply involved in sorting out political issues since the parliament is almost dysfunctional.
The top three political party heads of PML-N, PPP, and PTI leaders, as well as large numbers of political leaders, are facing court cases, but the courts continue to remain selected and prejudiced. Their verdicts are mostly governed by the direction of the wind and not on merit.
As against the desire of the PTI to hold early elections, the PML-N wants a level playing field for the elections. In their view, the field will be leveled once NS and Ishaq Dar return home and cases of corruption against them are quashed. After making 27 amendments to NAB laws, other PML-N and PPP leaders have got relief in corruption cases. Dar is returning on 27 Sept to take over as finance minister. He will present himself before the accountability court on Oct 7 and is likely to be cleared of all his cases. He will have to impose a financial emergency to avert financial liquidity and default.
The military which used to play the role of a referee is finding itself in a weak position for the first time since both the camps feel that they have been victims of military meddlesome roles. The army under Gen Bajwa has, however, reasserted its credibility in the eyes of the public in the ongoing flood relief operations. To impose caution upon the irresponsible retired armed forces officers, the Ministry of Defence has disassociated itself from the ex-servicemen societies. GHQ has penalized about 22 veterans.
The fight between the political parties and between the PTI and the military has been exacerbated and sensationalized by electronic and social media, crossing all limits of ethics. Their diatribes are boosted by the traditional anti-Pakistan and anti-army brigades, now joined by the veterans and the Pakistani ex-pats in which few disgruntled veterans are included. The effects of media war are so pungent that families have been divided and fissures created in the unassailable tree of the army.
The government is claiming that it saved Pakistan from default, and is making efforts to put the country back on the rails. For that, it wants to complete its tenure by August 2023, which is unacceptable to PTI.
Pakistan will remain in flux in 2022 and half of 2023 if not more.
Under the prevailing grim political, economic, and security dynamics, there is no scope for dirty politics and greedy power struggles.
The only way out of the ongoing multi-dimensional crises is to lower tempers, replace emotions and pig-headedness with rationalism and accommodation, and sit together to work out a political settlement that suits Pakistan and its national interests.
No party is in a position to have its way using roughshod tactics. The political polarization is so deep-rooted and the society so sharply divided, that no party can subdue all others and have its way.
There will have to be a give and take under the policy of reconciliation to break the political logjam which is shaking the foundations of the federation. Emphasis should be on reforming the judiciary, decentralization of the political edifice, making more provinces, and reforming and strengthening local governments.
This course, if adopted, will overcome the fascist and autocratic tendencies of the rulers of three mainstream parties and would block the Bonapartist tendencies of the military.
The unprecedented rains and floods due to climate change require unified and sustained national efforts and international support to rebuild destroyed houses, shops, orchards, roads, and bridges and to rehabilitate the affected people. The international community and international financial institutes should speed up their responses, and suspend the external debt repayments for three years.
The incumbent government must gear up the reconstruction work, make use of prefabricated technology to build houses, implement measures to forestall flood catastrophes in the future, increase the inflow of FDI, which is presently 1% of the GDP, reform the economy and correct the macroeconomic imbalances to shore up the economy.
Building a strong defense against subversive war through effective counter Psychological Operations is the need of the hour and must be undertaken by the educated elders, Ulemas, teachers, professors, and parents in every house, mosque, and educational institution.
Brig. General Asif Haroon Raja is on the board of advisors for Opinion Maker. He holds an MSc war studies degree. A second-generation officer, he fought the epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war,
He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt, and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is tri-lingual and speaks English, Pashto, and Punjabi fluently.
Currently, he is a defense analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defense, and political matters for numerous international/national publications. He is chairman at the Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre, & Member CWC PESS & Veterans Think Tank
He is also the author of many books; ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, and Roots of 1971 Tragedy’. His latest book is ‘Tangled knot of Kashmir : Indo-Pakistan antagonism: vol. 1 and vol. 2″