Out of power, Imran Khan continues to be powerful in Pakistan

Pakistan is on the edge again. Its economy is broken and Imran Khan is threatening to set the house on fire if the army leadership does not pave his way back to power. Three factors underlying its dysfunctional state have brought about this situation.

First, the Pakistani economy, prone to periodic crises because of its structural problems — notably the burdens imposed by its adversarial posture against India — has been hit hard by the pandemic and the Ukraine war. Inflation is high, the Pakistan rupee has nosedived, foreign exchange reserves are worth about six weeks’ imports and nearly $40 billion borrowing is required to meet the external financing needs in the current financial year. The Shehbaz Sharif government has had to take unpopular steps to secure the much-needed revival of the IMF Extended Fund Facility (EFF). The disbursal of these funds has been suspended because the Imran Khan government did not fulfil the stipulated conditions. A nod from the IMF Executive Board is awaited later this month.

Chances are that Pakistan will scrape through again, with the Board giving its approval, thereby de-blocking funding from other sources as well — the anxieties of the international community over an economic meltdown in an already highly troubled state make this likely. There are also signs of another transactional equation between Pakistan and the US. They include General Qamar Bajwa’s talks with the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to seek help in expediting the IMF approval. It’s also likely that Bajwa may have given assurances on Afghanistan – there are reports of Pakistan’s help in Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing. The visit of the CENTCOM commander to Islamabad after an 18-month gap and the reported supply of military stores by Pakistan for Ukraine also signals the possibility of a Pak-US equation.

Second, gross interference of the military leadership in the country’s political processes has led to a serious political crisis, which threatens the path to economic recovery. Army chief Bajwa got Nawaz Sharif ousted from power through a dubious accountability process in 2017, heavily aided Imran Khan’s victory in the 2018 election and sustained him in power for close to four years. Finally, disenchanted with Imran, Bajwa got him voted out by getting the smaller parties supporting him – they are beholden to the army — to abandon the former PM, and brought in the Shehbaz Sharif coalition. Things have not panned out as expected by Bajwa or Shehbaz. Imran’s popularity has grown and his party, the PTI, has won hands down in the by-elections in the Punjabi heartland in July. Khan’s narrative — he was ousted by the army at the behest of a foreign power (US) because of his independent foreign policy — and description of his opponents as a bunch of corrupt politicians seems to go down well with the middle classes and youth, among whom he already enjoyed considerable traction. The recent findings of illegal foreign funding of the PTI have not impacted his support base. Worse still for Bajwa, Imran is reported to enjoy support in sections of the army’s rank and file and amongst some serving and retired generals. Shehbaz’s PML(N) finds itself carrying the burden of unpopular economic decisions. Its charismatic vote-getter, Nawaz Sharif, continues to be in exile.

Third, Pakistan’s politics of revenge has added fuel to the political firestorm. Imran, when in office, hounded his opponents through accountability cases, most of which made no headway. The Shehbaz government seems intent on paying him back in his own coin by pursuing the foreign funding case. One of his senior aides was arrested recently for remarks, allegedly aimed at dividing the army, in a TV appearance — the TV channel concerned was taken off the air. A ban has been imposed on the live telecast of Imran’s speeches. A case of terrorism has been registered against him for his remarks during a public address threatening senior police officers and a judge. Therefore, he could be arrested. He has responded by building a wall of his supporters around his residence on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Where do things go from here? The solution could lie in an election. However, the aspirations of the key actors are at odds with each other. Riding a wave of popularity, Imran Khan is demanding an immediate election, backed by the threat of mass agitation. It is not clear if General Bajwa harbours ambitions after completing his tenure in November. But if he does, he may have to manage his army family. He would like to ensure at the very least the appointment of a successor, who would protect him after retirement, even if Imran Khan returns to power. The PML(N) and its principal coalition partners wish to stay in power till the second half of 2023, when the election is normally due. The PML(N)’s hope would be to see the return of Nawaz Sharif and the hardship imposed by the government’s tough economic measures ease substantially by then so that it is in a position to give some sops to people.

The strategy of the government, backed by Bajwa, appears to be to coerce Imran Khan to adopt a more reasonable posture with the threat of disqualification from holding public office — much like Nawaz Sharif — on the charges of foreign funding of his party and terrorism. But this could backfire, making him more popular. Much would also depend upon the stance of the next army chief who would be free of the burden of long years of incumbency. Notwithstanding the resentment of political players, including Imran Khan, against the army’s interference in political affairs, the army continues to have a central place in their calculations. Greater political uncertainty and turmoil seem almost certain in Pakistan in the coming weeks and months. Pakistan has been here before but has carried on. The current crisis might also end sometime soon. However, Pakistan will continue to face such situations again and again till it resolves its dysfunctionality.

The writer is a former diplomat and author of the recently released book, India’s Pakistan Conundrum: Managing a Complex Relationship