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Imran’s Gambit

This refrain from openly criticising the US government explicitly was always helpful in replotting the return to power.

BHOPINDER SINGH |

Pakistan has had 29 Prime Ministers since independence, and none has ever completed a full five-year term. All without any exception, have been eased out by the overt or covert push from the shadowy Pakistani military or the proverbial, ‘establishment’. Imran Khan Niazi (who desists from using the family name ‘Niazi’ owing to the infamy of the notorious Lt Gen AK Niazi), was forced out in 3 years and 235 days, grudgingly. Ironically, the same ‘establishment’ that was blamed for interfering in the 2018 elections in his favour was later paradoxically blamed by the clearly miffed Imran Khan of pulling the rug from under his feet, in favour of opponents who were on the wrong side of the ‘establishment’, in 2018.

Each of the earlier dispensations ~ from the PML-N to the PPP ~ had had their own respective grouses with the Pakistani ‘establishment’; however, their expression of frustration was always muted, obfuscated and mealy-mouthed, but never direct or irretrievable ~ somewhere the sense that the invaluable tide of the ‘establishment’ would one day turn in their favour, always lingered. However, at all times, despite the intractable and often invisible equation that beset the Pakistani ‘establishment’ (read military) and the United States of America, criticising Washington DC was strictly off the menu. This was because the presumable acquiescence of any dispensation ‘change’ by the US was always implicit.

This refrain from openly criticising the US government explicitly was always helpful in replotting the return to power. From day one of Imran Khan’s ‘nomination’ (as teasingly called by the outgoing opposition, instead of ‘election’), the temperamental Pathan from Mianwali had maintained an outsized disdain for the United States publicly. Imran’s rather long speech after the declaration of the results in 2018 had a surprisingly brief, cold and telling mention of the United States where he said, “As far as America is concerned, we want to work on a policy that is mutually beneficial. Not a oneway relationship. There needs to be a balance.” Period. Perhaps the calculation in Washington DC was that the empty posturing and bravado of Imran Khan was only political and that the ‘establishment’ would be able to rein him in, away from the public glare.

The brash Imran Khan was clearly carried away by his own braggadocio to such an extent that even beyond the United States, he thought he could do without the Pakistani military or ‘establishment’. As the situation became more tense and unsure, instead of offering the olive branch to the Pakistani ‘establishment’ (as was done by all other dispensations), the immature leader upped the ante and decided to interfere in the working of the military (tinkering with sensitive appointments that could impact the future chain of command). Imran even mocked the selfclaimed ‘neutrality’ of the Pakistani Military with innuendoes of partisan partiality. The ‘red-lines’ were soon crossed and a late-night conversation with ‘establishment’ functionaries finally led to the ouster of Imran Khan, howling and shrieking.

But the first time Prime Minister did not stop at the ‘establishment’, and he extrapolated his fate to a ‘foreign conspiracy’ that was pointing to Washington DC. While ranting against the United States is an old staple for the fringe and extremist organisations in Pakistan, for a mainstream political party to adopt such stridency is audacious. This anti-American position has a ready constituency with its convenient ability to attribute the ensuing socio-economic crisis onto fantastic conspiracy theories wherein ‘controlling’ Pakistan is the ostensible agenda of the ‘infidel’ West! While Imran has been successful in striking a public chord (even if it remains unsubstantiated), his mapped route to power is predicated on permanently burning bridges with the United States, and by that extension, to the ‘Free World’ and the multilateral bodies like the IMF and World Bank.

Even the US allies in the Gulf Sheikhdoms would shun Islamabad with such anchorages. This would leave an improbable second-term Imran Khan with the sole option of getting bankrolled by the Chinese ~ something even the Pakistani military would be unsure of in terms of the little elbow room that it would leave the ecosystem with. Now Imran Khan is creatively conjoining the United States and the Pakistani ‘establishment’ to be hand-in-glove along with rival politicos, and therefore positioning his appeal as the anti-West and anti-military crusader who with Chinese largesse will pull out Pakistan from its obvious morass ~ a dangerously appealing and realistically doomed proposition from the word go! Imran’s Tehreek-i-Insaaf is incredously believed to be behind the sneery smear campaign following the helicopter crash that accounted for senior officers of the Pakistani military.

Besides the establishment’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) which condemned the campaign, the Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also weighed in: “This is what self-righteous political narratives do: they poison the minds of the youth and weaponise hate speech.” Further, Imran’s close aide, Dr Shahbaz Gill was arrested for ‘seditious’ comments after the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) found his suggestion of complicity between the ruling PML-N and Pakistani Army to host a ‘strategic media cell’ highly objectionable, as also his advice to the rank and file of army officers to desist from taking orders which were ostensibly, ‘against the sentiments of the masses’! Most recently, PTI’s Shireen Mazari conflated the US and the veritable ‘establishment’, as she slammed the visit by the new US Ambassador to Pakistan, Donald Blome, to the forward Torkham area in a military helicopter as a ‘US regime change conspiracy’.

She went on with her vitriol, saying, ‘Blome Viceroy in all but name and arrogance writ large?’. With such an impudent and imperious approach, Imran Khan may endear himself to the ignorant masses, but it critically closes the doors with both the ‘establishment’ and the United States ~ a support system which can never be filled by thundering rhetoric, braggadocio or even by the Chinese. Imran’s gambit is not just reckless and ill-thought through from a Pakistani perspective, but also from a regional angle as the consequences of Imran’s mismanagement in his first innings, be it in Afghanistan or within Pakistan, are still being felt. Imran’s gambit has been reckless till now and if he persists with the same, worse times are guaranteed.