By Uttam Sen
The leading dramatis persona in Pakistan’s current political imbroglio is reconstructing a few forgotten stories, enough to merit looking back with some curiosity. The most gripping is Imran Khan’s recall that the writing was on the wall for a united Pakistan when the military junta refused to recognize the landslide majority of the Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman-led Awami League in 1970.The war of secession followed and Bangladesh was born in 1971.
Imran Khan is drawing an intimidating analogy, after being voted out of power in the National Assembly and then being arrested for corruption. All hell broke loose on Imran Khan’s arrest on corruption charges on May 9, 2023. At the time of writing the Supreme Court had ruled his arrest as unlawful overturning a lower court ruling that it was legal. The court ordered his release. Imran Khan himself considers his imprisonment as the Army Chief, General, Syed Asim Munir’s personal vendetta against him, one he is presumably confident of handling.
In “normal” circumstances the Army cuts politicians to size. The ends of the Bhutto father and daughter, and in his own way Nawaz Sharif after he fell out with Pervez Musharraf, were drastic.
Imran Khan, an icon among icons in cricket, and putatively second only to the Almighty to his more committed followers, has declaimed that traveling the untrodden path can suffuse the courageous with untold power. As a cricketer he had proved himself several times. He graduated with economics, politics and philosophy from an Oxford college and is endowed with a broader outlook than some of his more homespun political competitors. Additionally, his ability at times to hold forth like the promised deliverer can make him pre-eminent.
India has left him well alone, even while giving the tenderfooted, impolitic Foreign Minister and Bhutto-Zardari scion, Bilawal, a bit of a bloody nose on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Council meeting in Goa. As Prime Minister, Imran Khan had blown hot and cold with India, as they are all wont to do.
But for a person who had defied the US and the UK , by visiting Moscow on the day of the Russian movement into Ukraine and continuing the formalities with China, Imran khan had said he was prepared to appreciate India’s realpolitik compulsions in joining the Quad (the US-Australia-Japan-India strategic tie-up which makes China see red). He had blamed the USA for his ouster, quite specifically an official of doing mischief in Pakistan. The USA has categorically denied the allegation.
Somewhat predictably the US and the UK have called for a return to the rule of law while Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf cadres and other supporters go on the rampage. The military authorities have read out the riot act and every kind of severity can be expected. The odds are generally in favour of the Army, arguably the country’s safest institution, weathering the storm.
The difference with the past is that the geopolitical situation is unusually fraught. Imran Khan had divulged an inclination towards the China-Russia-Iran bloc that holds sway in the region, despite a stated aversion for political groupings. Saudi Arabia and Iran have recently buried the hatchet though Imran Khan’s role in the deal is not known. The million-dollar-question is whether a politician sensing a strategic and political turning point is cocking a snook at the Army or presciently anticipating the new normal.
The issues in Pakistan, as indeed the rest of South Asia, cannot continue to be purely political, impervious to economic, even climatic, conditions which invite a broader approach. Bread and butter subjects are on people’s minds, even if they prefer rule by a self-professed maverick to that of the proverbial cat’s paw. Floods wreaked havoc in Pakistan last year killing more than a thousand and causing damage borne by the poor. If the two principal protagonists in Pakistan’s power struggle recognize their country’s plight, both Pakistan and South Asia will be better served.
Shehbaz Sharif, the United Opposition Prime Minister, had announced his inflation-hit country was in a very tight corner awaiting a delayed IMF loan tranche. Fine-tuning the Army’s role to a constructive one rather than that of a dated war machine will be as critical as the informed and knowledgeable being allowed to address holistic humanitarian objectives for natural regions as a whole. Political communication can emanate from various sources and an influential godman in India telling a questioner from Karachi in his audience that the soil was common to mankind regardless of community, creed and nation felt like Manna from Heaven.
Should Imran Khan survive the present ordeal in competitive flag-waving, his traction will be a factor to reckon with. If he is really the part he has warned he is, keeping him on a short leash can hearken back a fissiparous past, with Balochistan as the elephant in the room. The “bad” Taliban, namely those making trouble in Pakistan, are also at large.