As the flames of the May 9 arson dissipate, it is clear that the violence perpetrated by former PM Khan’s supporters is only one element of the power struggle unfolding before our eyes for a year. Alongside the rioting and plunder of military installations, a group of men was hoping that there would be a mutiny of sorts in the army, resulting in the exit of General Asim Munir. In spite of all his denials, Imran Khan had most certainly placed all his bets on this outcome. But the putsch failed miserably, and now Khan and some of his invisible supporters within the miltablishment have been left high and dry. Most, if not all, of them are likely to ‘face the music’ as well.
Following the mass arrests of PTI workers and its second-tier leadership, the actual dismantling of PTI as a king’s party has commenced with dramatic alacrity. Even by Pakistani standards, the speed of PTI’s undoing is remarkable, as even Khan himself expects the PTI to be banned. The miltablishment is well-trained to undertake such surgical operations, as former COAS General (retd) Bajwa confirmed in his farewell speech, citing seven decades of hardcore experience. Granted, those leaving the party in droves are turncoats and rank opportunists who have sensed what lies ahead. Trials under the Army Act, the prospect of prolonged incarceration, and disqualification from the electoral arena are enough to sway these men and women with feet of clay to announce their ‘forced divorce‘ from the PTI, as lamented by Imran Khan. After all, Khan and his coterie is being held responsible for yet another ‘black day’ in the history of Pakistan, particularly of its much vaunted army.
The second vector of the miltablishment’s strategy has been closing their ranks and ‘circling the wagons.’ The toxic spiels of veterans wedded to an Imranist worldview have disappeared. The COAS fired the Lahore Corps Commander, arrested the granddaughter of a former COAS, and reports suggest that internal purges are underway. On May 25, a ceremony held to pay tribute to the martyrs had showcased a special guest in civilian attire: General (retd) Qamar Javed Bajwa, who had been declared a traitor by none other than Imran Khan. The message was clear for all political forces, especially the PTI, that serving and retired chiefs shall remain ‘untouchable.’
Following the mass arrests of PTI workers and its second-tier leadership, the actual dismantling of PTI as a king’s party has commenced with dramatic alacrity.
The third prong of the miltablishment’s coup (or counter-coup against Khan’s offensive) has been the draconian clampdown on PTI’s presumably invincible propaganda architecture erected through overseas funding, taxpayer monies from provincial governments, and some private media outlets. YouTubers like Imran Riaz Khan are ‘missing’, others were ‘picked up’ and then released after being given certificates of good behaviour, and the operation to ‘update softwares’ is ongoing. In part, this clampdown has been triggered by a disinformation ecosystem that was cheering for anarchy and calling for a mutiny within the ranks of the military.
Another obvious component of this third prong is the miltablishment’s own psy-ops and information warfare against the PTI social media machine, including but not limited to the reactivation of its erstwhile ‘strategic assets’ of the religio-political arena to challenge the PTI’s popularity. Posters of martyrs and billboards praising the generals, videos of singing and dancing while showering soldiers with flower petals, and choreographed rallies of expensive cars carrying the Pakistani flag, are all part of the miltablishment’s standard approach to ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the people. It was only a matter of time before netizens other than those supporting the PTI would also call out the army for this futile display of pride and national identity, amidst the political, economic and security crises that have engulfed Pakistan of late.
Trials under the Army Act, the prospect of prolonged incarceration, and disqualification from the electoral arena are enough to sway these men and women with feet of clay to announce their ‘forced divorce‘ from the PTI
The final angle of the miltablishment’s putsch will entail the likely re-arrest and trial of Imran Khan, of which ‘the great Khan’ is well aware of. While previously he had the numbers – the street power of charged supporters who were willing to go to any lengths to defend their messiah – now he seems to be losing morale as well. The ‘clean up’ operation at Zaman Park, and the police now freely patrolling an area once considered Khan’s impregnable fortress, indicate to many that Khan is already under ‘control’ if not in official custody. And as much as Khan’s armies of social media admirers will have you believe otherwise, the former prime minister and unorthodox firebrand is all out of options: the fate befalling the thousands who raged against the army on May 9, in ‘revenge’ for Khan’s arrest, is forcing both grassroots supporters and keyboard warriors to rethink their priorities, lest they too wish to get caught in the ongoing power struggle where neither party appears to have their true interests at heart.
On May 11, a victorious Imran Khan appeared unassailable. He had challenged the army chief, his party had burnt down symbols of military power, and a few Supreme Court judges appeared to be firmly ensconced in his corner. Within days, the junta struck back with the full might of state power, including the ruling coalition that now appears as the ‘B-team’ in a postmodern coup where the civvies have rallied behind the boots in pursuit of their common enemy.
Was this the greatest miscalculation by Imran Khan? For now, it does appear to be the case. By taking on the military in such a slipshod manner and outside the ambit of a parliamentary consensus, Khan has not only eliminated the possibility of his return to power, but even his role as a politician in the short-to-medium term might be severely curtailed. If he somehow miraculously escapes the wrath of the junta, much of his party structure – especially the ‘electables’ – will not return to his fold. The best case scenario for Khan would be a return to the pre-Bajwa-Faiz era, where his party could be a small and vocal player, but without the backing of the deep state. Even this is an optimistic view, as history tells us that politicians are always taught a lesson.
The ruling parties might be secretly cheering the end of project Imran, but they appear hapless and devoid of political initiative
Where does this leave the parties in the ruling coalition? They might be secretly cheering the end of project Imran, but they appear hapless and devoid of political initiative. Imran Khan’s rigidity has left no space for any political compromise to occur, and the ruling coalition is all too happy with the Imran-versus-miltablishment saga. What these parties are forgetting is by ceding space to the military, and by enabling draconian crackdowns, they might be paving the way for an even more authoritarian environment. Once Imran is ‘fixed’, others might find themselves at the receiving end. Sooner than later, the military would have to appear even-handed.
Khan might still be hopeful of being blessed with further relief from Chief Justice Bandial, but it is also obvious that the apex adjudicator is also in a bind. CJP Bandial faces rifts within the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which are growing wider with each passing day. It remains to be seen if his brother judges will support additional efforts to bail out Imran Khan, or if any such attempt could generate opprobrium from the benches themselves. It would serve CJP Bandial well to re-evaluate his own powers and constitutional responsibilities, especially since the former premier’s attempts to sow divisions within a state institution resulted in a quickly growing mutiny against Khan himself.
In fact, many argue that the Bandial-led SC’s ‘slant’ in favour of PTI is the core reason why the PDM parties agreed to “military courts” being set up to try the planners, instigators and perpetrators of the May 9 riots. But this is not good news for Pakistan’s democrats, the media, and human rights defenders, as a creeping authoritarianism is eroding hard earned freedoms which have already been decimated over the years. Political parties cannot outsource their battles to the miltablishment, nor should they encourage unconstitutional excesses, for they might find themselves on the other side of the sword even before this crisis is over.
The author is Editor-at-Large, The Friday Times and founder of Naya Daur Media. Earlier, he was editor, Daily Times and a broadcaster with Express News and Capital TV. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com