Is It the End of the Saga for Imran Khan?

The sentence, delivered in a case in which Mr. Khan is accused of leaking state secrets, came about a week before Pakistan is set to head to the polls for the first national election since he was ousted in a vote of no confidence in April 2022.

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Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan. [File Photo]

HAS THE SAGA OF IMRAN KHAN ENDED?

Finally, the curtain appears to have been pulled down on the drama enacted by the Pakistan army on the most popular politician alive by sentencing him to ten years imprisonment. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan was sentenced to 10 years in prison the latest twist in what is widely seen as a campaign by the military to sideline one of its leading critics. The sentence, delivered in a case in which Mr. Khan is accused of leaking state secrets, came about a week before Pakistan is set to head to the polls for the first national election since he was ousted in a vote of no confidence in April 2022. Analysts have called the election among the least credible in Pakistan’s 76-year history because of the military’s widespread crackdown on Imran Khan and his supporters. His ouster set off a political showdown between Mr. Khan, 71, and the powerful military — long the invisible hand guiding the country’s politics — that has left Pakistan in crisis for a year and a half. Mr. Khan and his supporters have accused military leaders of orchestrating his removal — an accusation they deny.  

IS REVOLT AGAINST THE GENERALS POSSIBLE?

Imran Khan and his backers have railed against the country’s generals, his popularity has remained high, and public anger at the military has swelled. In May, hundreds of protesters attacked military installations in scenes that were once unimaginable in Pakistan.  The New York Times reports that the sentence, delivered in a case in which Imran   Khan is accused of leaking state secrets, came about a week before Pakistan is set to head to the polls for the first national election since he was ousted in a vote of no confidence in April 2022. Analysts have called the election among the least credible in Pakistan’s 76-year history because of the military’s widespread crackdown on Imran Khan and his supporters. His ouster set off a political showdown between Imran  Khan, 71, and the powerful military — long the invisible hand guiding the country’s politics — that has left Pakistan in crisis for a year and a half. Mr. Khan and his supporters have accused military leaders of orchestrating his removal — an accusation they deny.

PAKISTAN WILL NOT BE ABLE TO BRING MILITARY ESTABLISHMENT UNDER CIVILIAN CONTROL

An unnamed analyst (from Quora) expressed his opinion that Pakistan is not going to be able to bring the military establishment firmly under the control of a democratically elected civilian government anytime soon. Some people tend to underestimate just how much influence the Pakistani military possesses within the country. This influence extends to almost everything in one form or another. Let’s look at the military-owned or affiliated private businesses for example. Such as the Fauji Foundation Company, which is involved in everything from fertilizers to food products to banking to construction to energy and much more. Or Banks, such as Askari Bank, one of the largest banks in Pakistan with hundreds of branches. Or the housing societies (DHA, Askaris, etc) and construction companies. Or educational facilities and institutes from the kindergarten to university level. And pretty much any other form of trade or business. Reports from a few years back indicated that the military probably owns more than seven percent of all private assets and twelve percent of land. Then there is the fact that important aspects of the state are directly controlled or heavily influenced by the military establishment. Pakistan’s intelligence (ISI) for example is under the control of the military. Or the 111th Infantry Brigade, which is responsible for providing security to the Prime Minister, President, and other government officials. But is also used by the military establishment in coups against democratically elected Prime Ministers.

DID THE MILITARY ESTABLISHMENT MAKE A MISTAKE BY ACTING TOO EARLY AGAINST IMRAN KHAN?

The unnamed analyst felt that the military establishment made a mistake by acting too early against Imran Khan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the 9th Prime Minister of Pakistan, was also removed from power in a military coup (and later executed) after a loss of popularity and widespread discontent. It should be clear by now that the influence of the military extends into almost every aspect of the country. The tentacles of the military have spread everywhere. There is no simple or easy solution to this now pervasive influence that extends into almost everything. We have seen time and again what happens when a Prime Minister tries to challenge the influence of the military establishment. Nawaz Sharif tried to influence or intervene in military matters and was removed from power in 2017.

The military establishment allied with his opposition (Imran Khan and the PTI) and helped raise the party to power. And now the same happened to Imran Khan when he tried to intervene in military appointments. The same old powers (Sharifs and Bhuttos) now once again forming an alliance with the establishment to be used against Imran Khan. It has also prevented the maturation of the political system and resulted in a very volatile or fragile political landscape. It is hard to say whether this political instability was intentional or an accidental outcome. Imran Khan is now 71 years old and if he has to serve out his sentence of ten years, he will be too old regardless of his popularity as the army is not expected to relinquish its power in Pakistan.

RETURN OF NAWAZ SHARIF WITH ARMY BLESSINGS

The very fact that the PML-N of Nawaz Sharif has been pardoned by the judiciary for alleged crimes for which he had to spend decades in England is proof that Nawaz Sharif had to come to terms with the army for his return to power. Famous British Journal The Economist reported that Pakistan’s most popular politician, with a legion of committed activists and no fear of the army,  Imran Khan looked odds-on to win a general election.  Barely three weeks later, the political walls have caved in on him. The generals have in effect dismantled the party Khan founded in 1996, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Scores of its senior leaders have defected and thousands of its supporters have been arrested. The government of Shehbaz Sharif is openly mulling banning the party.  Khan, who faces dozens of charges including corruption and blasphemy, could be tried by a military court—and perhaps expect a long political exile at best. Pakistan’s beleaguered civilian institutions appear, for now, to be firmly back under the army’s sway. Whether under orders from the military or out of sheer opportunism, the government of Shehbaz Sharif is backing the PTI’s dismantlement.

IMRAN KHAN WAS THE ARMY’S PREFERRED CANDIDATE

An irony of Khan’s fall, not lost on Pakistanis, is that he was once promoted by the army as a means to suppress other civilian parties, including Sharif’s. After he became prime minister in 2018 some observers described his government as a civil-military “hybrid”. But the generals eventually tired of his grandstanding and narcissism, leading to his ouster last year in a no-confidence vote. The attacks unleashed on army buildings by his supporters on May 9th, including the ransacking of a house belonging to the commanding general in Lahore, were unprecedented and, it is now clear, intolerable to the generals. An army spokesman promised a crackdown on all “planners, instigators, abettors and perpetrators” of the violence.

Penitent PTI leaders have since been paraded before journalists, condemning the violence, dissociating themselves from Khan, and pledging fealty to the army. Many of them have renounced politics altogether. Rights organizations accuse the government of using the crackdown to detain peaceful opponents alongside alleged rioters. The Economist added that the generals would now be weighing their options. Based on their past campaigns against civilian politicians who dared to disappoint them, these will include jailing Khan, nudging him into exile, disqualifying him from politics, and, though it seems unlikely, allowing him to contest the election at the head of whatever remains of his party. Or they might decide that the election would not be held—there are rumors that they mean to form a technocratic government instead. The latest on Imran Khan is his conviction for 14 years on the charge of illegally selling state gifts. He has already been convicted of 10 years and barred from contesting the forthcoming polls. The 14-year jail sentence is harsher than the 10-year sentence and his disqualification from contesting the forthcoming polls.  The harshness of the sentences demonstrates the complete hold of the army establishment in Pakistan.

FALL OF IMRAN KHAN AS HE CHALLENGED THE ARMY ESTABLISHMENT

Imran Khan, for his part, remains defiant. Challenging the government to “break as many people as you want”, he has called for early elections. In any event, political and economic stability is likely to remain elusive.  Khan’s sidelining will not make him less popular.  Sharif and, for that matter, whoever the generals pick to lead the country next will have to contend with vast numbers of disaffected PTI supporters. These “might be” scenarios have become futile if Imran Khan has to serve out his fourteen years of imprisonment. Pakistan’s history has been what it has been since birth and particularly after the rise of Bangabandhu as the sole leader of Bengalis in then-East Pakistan.  we should let Pakistan struggle with its problems.   

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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