Imran may be out but remains a challenge

Harsha Kakar

The hybrid government in Pak, a mix of political parties with generations of hostility, held together by pressure from the army, coordinated by a nonentity, Fazal-ul-Rehman, has yet to settle in and the sword of Damocles begins to hang above their heads. The Lahore High Court has demanded the presence of PM Shehbaz Sharif on 14th May for framing charges in a USD 16 Billion money laundering case. The case involves 28 ‘benami’ accounts from 2008-18. Bilawal Bhutto took oath as the foreign minister after discussions with party chief, Nawaz Sharif, in London, ignoring the current PM, Shehbaz Sharif. The summons by the Lahore high court will be fodder for Imran Khan who has been terming the current government as corrupt and imposed by the US.
Simultaneously, the nation faces an economic meltdown. Its external debt has soared from USD 95 billion in 2018 to over USD 130 billion today. Its foreign exchange reserves have declined below USD 11.3 Billion and within this quarter itself, it has to repay foreign debt of USD 2.5 Billion. Talks with the IMF have recommenced. The IMF is demanding roll back of oil and power subsidies granted by Imran, prior to release of funds. These subsidies have impacted oil imports and reports of shortages of diesel continue to flow.
Imran has been stating in his rallies that the economic scenario was in excellent shape during his premiership. In a recent address, he mentioned, ‘our economic situation was very good. Our exports, remittances, tax collection, agricultural output, and the price of agricultural products were all historic.’ In case Shehbaz removes Imran’s subsidies, the game would shift in Imran’s favour. Pakistan is being compelled to lift subsidies in stages to avoid internal backlash.
This year Pakistan will face a shortage of wheat. With Russian and Ukrainian wheat unavailable in large quantities, its prices in the global market have skyrocketed. A report stated that Pakistan may need to expend USD 1.2 Billion on import of wheat this year alone. This would then need to be subsidised for its population, adding to financial drain. The ideal option is to import from India, however, doing so could place the Shehbaz government on a sticky wicket. Such a move would be exploited by Imran as India will never reverse its decision on Article 370.
Within the Pak army there are many who opposed Imran’s ouster. Bajwa may have rejected any further extension to win over his corps commanders, however it has done little to regain support from the rank and file. Imran, while backing the army on one hand, has been accusing Bajwa in his speeches. He stated a few days ago, ‘there are also humans in institutions. If one or two individuals do something wrong, the entire institution is not responsible. If one person (in reference to Gen Bajwa) makes a mistake, this does not mean the whole institution is at fault.’ In Imran’s rallies there have been slogans stating, ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai,’ hinting at the army.
Omar Hayat, a retired Lt Gen of the Pak army stated, ‘a vast majority of retired and serving armed forces personnel support Imran Khan’s narrative because they see him as the polar opposite of traditionally corrupt politicians.’ Many veterans on television debates criticized Imran Khan’s ouster by the army. General Bajwa was compelled to call a special meeting of his senior staff and justify the reasons.
PTI twitter handles launched veiled attacks on the army. Such were social media pressures that the Pak army spokesperson, Maj Gen Iftikhar, addressed a press conference terming the anti-army campaign as ‘illegal, immoral and against national interest.’ Imran is working to put brakes on future actions by the army to appoint its own ‘selected PMs.’ He is aware that he is unlikely to be supported in the future.
While the Shehbaz Sharif government attempts to mend ties with the US, Imran works to ensure they remain distant by continuing his rant on the US conspiracy claim. He recently sought to involve the President and the Supreme court by asking them to investigate the claim. A renowned US think tank, Brookings, urged President Biden to speak to Shehbaz Sharif. Such a call could send Pakistan’s internal crisis skyrocketing. This would provide Imran with ammunition to convince fence sitters on his foreign conspiracy theory further enhancing the internal divide.
Imran has not been sitting idle but demanding immediate elections. The populace has been lapping up his conspiracy theories and forced ouster by the army. He is aware that if elections are held early, he would have an advantage. His demand for immediate elections was turned down by the election commission which stated that elections are not possible before May 2023. He has been left with little alternative but to keep his road show going while accusing the election commission of being against him.
His conspiracy theory and accusing the army of ousting him has polarized society in Pak to levels never witnessed before. In his latest address, Imran asked his supporters to await his call for moving to Islamabad. He expects upto two million people to assemble to exert pressure on the government to force early elections.
A few cases continue being investigated and heard in different courts against Imran Khan. These include foreign funding for his political party, gifts presented to him and financial irregularities of close associates. The longer it takes for these cases to reach closure the more they provide space to Imran Khan to run riot. A rushed decision could also be counterproductive.
The current Islamabad and Rawalpindi dispensation is rightly ignoring the ranting and raving of Imran Khan. Any effort to curb him by either the army or state machinery could work to his advantage. Silence from the government is compelling Imran to repeat the same story again and again. How long can he keep the pot boiling. At some stage the public will lose interest. Hence, delayed elections suit the present ruling dispensation.
In the current scenario there is only one certainty. Imran will not allow Shehbaz Sharif to govern peacefully. If pushed, Imran may incite violence to stay relevant. Definitely, Pakistan is heading for troubled times. Imran was right when he stated that he could be a bigger nuisance out of power than within.
The author is Major General (Retd)