If Imran once again becomes an instrument of the generals, Pakistanis are unlikely to follow him, which is what makes any softening of Imran’s stand unlikely, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
If ever any additional proof was needed that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif serves at the pleasure not of the people of Pakistan but of the star officers of GHQ Rawalpindi, it was provided in his nervous press appearance on 12 May. In a somewhat tremulous voice, the younger of the Sharif brothers appealed to the public to turn away from Imran because his supporters had “attacked the military”.
There had been attacks and even torching (Sri Lanka style) of the private homes of the Sharifs brothers, but these were minor acts of violence in comparison with what had apparently horrified the Prime Minister of Pakistan the most, which was that high-ranking officers of the Pakistan Army were attacked, including the official homes of some Corps Commanders.
The Corps Commanders were the electoral college that deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and installed the dismissed Chief of Army Staff ex-General Pervez Musharraf as the Chief Martial Law Administrator. The senior Sharif was serially appointed and deposed (and lastly exiled) by the Pakistan military, and this has engendered in the mind of Shehbaz Sharif a fear of the military, the emotion that made the Corps Commanders in GHQ Rawalpindi catapult him to his present job.
Equally, it had been the Army generals who had chosen Imran Khan as the next Prime Minister and got him installed in August 2018, only to turf him out in April 2022.
The generals had by then made the Pakistan Army an auxiliary of the PLA, but were anxious to protect their assets and relatives located in Europe and in the US. They had calculated that Imran Khan, who had a long list of admirers in those parts of the world (not to mention in India), would be able to camouflage the sellout of the military to the CCP and once again prise open the cornucopia of benefits that western countries, the US in particular, had once showered on GHQ Rawalpindi.
Unfortunately, perhaps because of age or because wiser counsel had begun to prevail in Washington and Berlin, the flow of assistance from both sides of the Atlantic to Pakistan’s uniformed services failed to approach past levels of abundance. A decision was taken by the generals (the admirals and air marshals being of less consequence in military headquarters) to toss out Imran and bring in the younger Sharif, who was a full-blooded Punjabi and more importantly, had in the course of amassing his fortune, acquired as a by-product a host of legal vulnerabilities that made him the acquiescent Prime Minister that the generals sought.
Unlike the Zardaris and the Sharifs, Imran Khan Niazi does not come from a family whose members have become billionaires as a consequence of growing their businesses under the patronage of those that count in Pakistan, the uniformed services and the religious zealots. The deposed Prime Minister did not vanish into the shadows and shortly thereafter appeared at the doors of the generals begging to be given a second chance in the manner that some of his predecessors had done Rather than wasting time on puppets, he went after the masters themselves, directing his ire at the military.
Earlier, both Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif while in power had challenged the military hierarchy by seeking to install puppets of their own at the apex of the Pakistan Army. The first was executed with help from a compliant judiciary, while the other was sent into exile. Imran Khan has challenged the military not while he was in high office but after having been removed from it. He has stripped away the camouflage netting of the country’s civilian interface and exposed the involvement of the generals in his overthrow and subsequent harassment through multiple cases filed against him.
And rather than lose public support as a consequence, Imran has picked up much more backing from the people of Pakistan than he had ever enjoyed earlier. Finally, it would appear, even in the Punjab province the people of Pakistan understand that they have been taken for a ride by the generals. That they have been victims of a confidence trick designed to keep them in poverty, religious fanaticism and illiteracy by an army leadership that had long made a career out of serving as a mercenary force, initially for the US and later on, to China.
Throughout the 21st century, Chinese Communist Party functionaries have visited Pakistan in much the way that US servicemen used to visit the Philippines in the years prior to World War II, as overlords. They have provided generous assistance to GHQ Rawalpindi in the latter’s efforts to inflict a thousand cuts on India. At the same time, the men in khaki have covered up the reality of their parasitical existence by pointing to an imaginary threat from India as the reason why the military should be allowed to reign supreme over Pakistan while itself functioning under its Liege Lord, the CCP.
If the National Accountability Bureau of Pakistan were serious about accountability for the many charges that have been flung in the direction of Imran Khan Niazi, they would have arrested most of the higher ranks of the Pakistan Army as well as civilian officials, not to mention politicians. When those who have swindled hundreds of billions of dollars accuse Imran of illegally benefitting from much smaller sums, such accusations carry little credibility in the public mind.
GHQ Rawalpindi is as frightened of holding fresh elections as are the Sharif brothers or the Zardaris. They can of course be sure that the men in khaki can assure them a comfortable victory when the ballot boxes are emptied, but are aware that this time around, the public reaction will be what it was when Bilawal Zardari’s grandfather Z.A.
Bhutto rigged the 1977 polls and ignited a furious public reaction that gave cover to General Zia to depose and later on hang him. This time around, the cry of the public is that the generals themselves be punished for what they have done to the future of Pakistan.
If Imran reverses his stance and once again becomes an instrument of the generals, the people of Pakistan are unlikely to follow him in such a betrayal, which is what makes any softening of Imran’s stand unlikely. Will he go the way of Benazir Bhutto and die in an explosion or through a bullet? Will he be locked up and the key thrown away in the hope that he loses his spine? None of the available options are without grave risks for the generals. As for the Chinese, the reality is that Imran Khan Niazi would not have been thrown out of power unless Beijing had given the nod to GHQ Rawalpindi. This is a truth that the most popular, the most endangered, the most dangerous, politician in Pakistan must be mulling over.