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Difficult days ahead for Imran Khan

Instability within the country has already hit Pakistan’s financial markets. Hoping to gain popularity and stave off the challenge, Imran announced a reduction in oil prices, alongside a slew of other schemes which his government can ill afford and which are against existing agreements with the IMF. This is adding to economic uncertainty as further financial assistance from IMF may be blocked leading to Pakistan defaulting on payments.

HARSHA KAKAR | New Delhi |

The no-trust motion against Imran Khan by a combined opposition, has created political upheaval within Pakistan. For a PM who was confident that the army was backing him and supporing his decisions, the no-confidence motion has placed Khan in a quandary. His recent statements indicate nervousness and a sense of betrayal.

Imran has been running from pillar to post to garner support. In his address to party workers in Karachi last week, he stated: “It (no-confidence vote) will not only fail, but this time, my first target will be Asif Ali Zardari.” He also threatened other opposition leaders whose parties backed the motion of a witch hunt. Imran admitted that the Army chief, General Bajwa advised him against calling opposition members in derogatory terms, which advice he refused to follow. Such public display of vengeance reflects poorly on the character of a sitting Prime Minister and displays paranoia.

Imran had in an earlier address criticized the European Union (EU) whose ambassadors had requested Pakistan for support on Ukraine. In another speech, he accused the US and EU of being behind his removal. His political allies are observing the reactions of the army, which has thus far maintained neutrality. For the notrust motion to succeed, the opposition needs 172 members, while it claims support of 202 members.

Imran Khan has survived till date by following diktats from the army, which controls the country from behind a flimsy curtain of democracy. His biggest claim to fame was being captain of the cricket World Cup winning team. Imran’s political career was launched by the army as an alternative to Nawaz Sharif. His nationwide protests, during the premiership of Nawaz, pushed him into national limelight and succeeded only because they were scripted and bankrolled by the army.

His political party, PTI, has no ideology, except loyalty to Imran. Historically a no-confidence motion has never worked in Pakistan as the army has backed the government in power. In this instance, the army remains in the background or possibly has had quiet parleys with the opposition to ensure Imran’s downfall. After all, every time the army decides to change the PM, it must have a new strategy to avoid global criticism.

The days of launching a coup are over. The tussle between the army chief and Imran over the appointment of DG-ISI is still fresh. Recently Imran had also hinted that he holds the key to appointing the next army chief or extending the tenure of General Bajwa, thereby displaying an independent streak, inherently disliked by Pakistani generals. Imran’s favourite, General Faiz Hameed, the erstwhile DG ISI, has been served a show-cause notice by Bajwa, sidelining him.

A report stated that Imran had rushed to Karachi to meet the powerful spiritual leader, Pir Pagara, known to be extremely close to the military establishment and possessing the ability to influence them. However, he was refused an audience. About 50,000 of the Pir’s militant Hur followers serve in the Pakistan army and provincial police, in reserved vacancies.

Instability within the country has already hit Pakistan’s financial markets. Hoping to gain popularity and stave off the challenge, Imran announced a reduction in oil prices, alongside a slew of other schemes which his government can ill afford and which are against existing agreements with the IMF. This is adding to economic uncertainty as further financial assistance from IMF may be blocked leading to Pakistan defaulting on payments. However, for Imran, a collapsing economy has lesser relevance than his fading political career.

Adding to Imran’s problems is the combining of the two main opposition parties, PPP and PML-N, which would never have been possible without prodding of the army. Under normal conditions, both parties maintain independent contact with the army for their own gains. Further boost is provided by Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman of JUI-F, the convenor of the PDM, an organization comprising of multiple regional parties convened to overthrow Imran.

The current agreement between rival political parties is for conduct of elections after the overthrow of Imran. Political turmoil in Pakistan is nothing new. No PM has ever completed his full tenure. Midway through his tenure, every PM begins to assume that he has absolute control and can dictate his policies even to the army. This becomes their undoing. The case with Imran is no different.

Stability within Pakistan is ensured by the army. For global visitors, Islamabad is for photo-ops while decisions are pushed in Rawalpindi. Prior to Imran’s recent visit to Beijing, the Chinese ambassador to Islamabad briefed General Bajwa on what Imran can request and what China expects of him. This was conveyed to Imran by Bajwa. Changing Imran would have also been approved by the Chinese leadership.

For the army, there has to be a puppet to pay the price for failures and in the current collapsing economic and foreign policy scenario, it would be Imran Khan who would be the sacrificial lamb. The silence of the army says a lot. At a recent press conference, the Director General of the Inter Services Public Relations on a question on whether the army supports the Imran government stated, ‘the army has nothing do with politics.’

An enraged Imran thundered that only animals remain neutral, further vitiating the environment. Surprisingly, even Imran’s own party members maintain silence on army support. Imran survived all these years because there was no alternative. It does appear that the army has finally found one. Whether the alternative would be Shahbaz Sharif or Bilawal Bhutto would be known with time. However, what appears certain is that Imran is fighting for survival, aware that if he loses, revenge will flow, similar to what he did to his opponents and as part of the tradition in Pakistani politics.

He also knows that without the establishment’s (army) support his own future and that of his political party will be uncertain forcing him into exile. For the country, this fight for survival has taken the focus away from a failing economy. For India, it is wait and watch as also hope that Pakistan gets a mature leader.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)