Imran Khan’s reckless statements may push the establishment deeper into politics

June 9, 2022

There was an element of inevitability in Imran Khan’s outburst against the security establishment. He feels discouraged to be left halfway without the accessory he had become so used to. He now blames his former bosses for everything that went wrong with his rule.

During a recent interview, he indicated that he had the responsibility but without the full powers. In the same breath, he lamented that the establishment had done nothing to thwart the “foreign conspiracy” against his government, which had decided to remain neutral in the fray.

The former prime minister also warned that the country could “split into three parts” if the establishment failed to make the right decisions. He went further by presenting an even grimmer scenario of shutting down its nuclear facilities in the event of an economic collapse.

Such reckless statements by a former prime minister raise serious concerns about his motives. He would prefer military intervention to the political process taking its own course. Its destructive populist policy is extremely dangerous not only for democracy but also for national security.

His tenor became increasingly brutal after his party’s failed attempt on May 25 to storm the capital and force the new government to call a snap election. In his uncompromising speeches, the former prime minister raised his guns on the security establishment. He even now suggests that the establishment was part of what he describes as a foreign conspiracy for regime change.

All these remarks of the former Prime Minister seem full of contradictions. Imran Khan criticizes military rulers not because he wants the establishment out of politics, but because he is upset at being left behind. The campaign of PTI supporters against the establishment manifests the same sentiment.

They are unhappy with the breakdown of the hybrid arrangement that provided the critical pivot around which Imran Khan’s government had endured. Once establishment loyalists, they now cry treason. This is certainly a new phenomenon in Pakistani politics and dangerous too. More serious is their designation of favorite generals. Such a campaign is unprecedented.

Indeed, this is not the first time that the establishment has been attacked. Virtually every civilian government over the past three decades has blamed security agencies for their ousting and criticized their machinations. The establishment’s imprint on every political shift has been visible. In fact, the military continues to cast its shadow over the country’s political landscape even when it is not directly in power.

It is also true that the involvement of the security establishment has been one of the main reasons for the political instability which has weakened the democratic political process in the country. The rise of Imran Khan’s political fortunes is due to political engineering carried out by the establishment. The cricketer-turned-politician has been cast as the latest best hope who could bring about the promised change.

It was the first experience of what is described as true hybrid rule in the country. A coalition of disparate political groups was formed to help Imran Khan form the government. For the first three years, the hybrid arrangement worked well with the imprint of the security establishment everywhere. In fact, the establishment has repeatedly saved the government from crises within the ruling coalition and outside.

Imran Khan then praised the military leadership. Described as a “democratic general”, General Bajwa was granted a three-year term extension. Imran Khan then did not complain that he had no power. In fact, he would brag about being on the same page with the establishment.

Everything was going well until cracks in the hybrid arrangement started to appear last year. The trigger may have been the differences over the appointment of the head of the ISI, but there were also other issues which together led to the breakdown of the relationship. In addition to governance problems, it is the erratic management of foreign policy that has caused further estrangement. Khan’s refusal to work within the parliamentary system and to sit with the opposition on crucial national issues had increased his government’s dependence on the security establishment.

When the opposition proposed a vote of no confidence against him, Khan asked for the support of the army leadership to keep the allies in line as has happened in the past. But at that time, no phone call was made by the government to the rebels to thwart the maneuver of the opposition. Indeed, the establishment’s decision to step down may also have encouraged the collapse of the former ruling coalition and defections from the PTI.

But it was also the arrogance and pride of the deposed Prime Minister that caused the fall of his government. Imran Khan’s “foreign conspiracy” mantra was largely aimed at saving the day and putting pressure on the establishment. It is obvious that Khan wants the army to intervene rather than trying to find a solution to the political crisis within a democratic framework, however weak it may be. In fact, there is a danger that his reckless stance could push the establishment deeper into politics. Recent developments have strengthened the establishment as the arbiter of power.

Imran Khan’s decision to leave the National Assembly indicates that he is not interested in following a democratic path. One can agree with the statement that it would have been better had the PTI government been allowed to complete its term. Yet change did not come through extra-constitutional intervention as we have seen in the past.

The vote of no confidence is part of the democratic process. Nor is there any truth to the allegation of a foreign conspiracy. Khan may have galvanized his supporters through his populist slogans, but his recklessness could also push him into a bind. There are no two views on eliminating the role of the security establishment in politics. But this could not be possible with political leaders who looked to other state institutions rather than resolving political issues in parliament.

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