Shifting Political Sands: Imran Khan Should Read The Signs Carefully

PMLN and PPP are getting relief and this is happening despite Imran Khan’s policy of fixing his ‘corrupt’ opponents. Such developments may culminate in a greater political change. 

The winds are blowing in a different direction as declared by the Chairman National Accountability Bureau (NAB). After the release of Miftah Ismail, Rana Sanaullah was released on bail and the court in its detailed judgment has hinted at the possibility of political victimization. Rana Sanaullah was accused of trafficking heroin and the government officials had time and again claimed that they had incontrovertible proof of his ‘crime’. Yet in the past six months no such evidence was presented before the court that would have led to effective prosecution.

These two events follow the bail of former PM Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz indicate a change in the policy of Pakistan’s establishment towards the PMLN. But it is not just the latter where this policy shift is evident. Pakistan People’s Party is also getting relief in battalions to use a Shakespearean phrase. Bilawal Bhutto however was served a notice to appear before the NAB. But there is a change in the approach of the quarters that shape and direct political affairs.

This leaves PM Imran Khan and his bungling cabinet in a lurch. They have been ranting about ruthless, across-the-board accountability and one minister has repeatedly asked for public hangings. PM Khan is also in a fix after Gen Musharraf’s treason case verdict. But the bigger challenge before the government is to get legislation passed to validate Gen Bajwa’s three-year extension that PM Khan had granted to the incumbent in August of this year.

Curiously, PM Khan has not done much to get the extension related legislation drafted, nor has he bothered to develop a consensus among the political parties. Perhaps this is why the establishment is taking the lead on building political support for the impending agreement and legislation.

Where does this leave the government, which until now has been on the same page with the security establishment?

That Nawaz and Maryam have not responded to Gen Musharraf’s verdict is a clear testament to the backdoor parleys of PMLN with the establishment. Shehbaz Sharif is leading this reverse engineering. It remains to be seen if this is a momentary, issue-specific cooperation or a longer-term understanding in the offing. This must be causing anxiety in the PTI camp as their ascension into power was facilitated by the Sharif-Army standoff.  Ahsan Iqbal’s arrest in a weak case points towards this anxiety as Iqbal had declared that opposition was working towards an in-house change.

Three possible scenarios can play out in the coming weeks.

First, the ‘relief’ to opposition becomes a precursor to making the current system functional, i.e., getting legislation done, getting a new Chief Election Commissioner and tackling other matters of national urgency. This would be the best course to adopt, as the democratic system cannot afford instability and perennial political conflict. But this is against the kind of worldview that PM Khan and his avid supporters hold for it dents their self-righteous, one-party-rule agenda. For them everyone except PTI is ’corrupt’ and working with the corrupt is against Khan’s rhetoric. But a U-turn is possible if push comes to shove. 

Second, the possibility of an in-house change translates into reality. Accomplishing this is not too difficult given the thin majority of PTI in the national assembly but the real question is if the establishment can trust a PM other than Imran Khan. The latter has been their best bet for years. Unless of course if the concerned quarters are skeptical of the government’s lack of organized attempt at parliamentary approval of Gen. Bajwa’s extension.

Third, the current state of confrontation and differing viewpoints collide between PTI, opposition parties and the establishment leading to a systemic breakdown and opening doors for extra-constitutional solutions. This is highly unlikely but we have been there before. In the 1990s, weak civilian governments functioned under a troika arrangement – the PM, a powerful President and the Chief of the Army Staff – and each time there was a collision between two or more actors, the government fell leading to premature elections.

The signals and signs are clear. Whether PM Imran Khan is ready to read them and act accordingly remains to be seen. The initiative is now in hands. Despite criticism from the opposition, media and the judiciary, he seems to be in survival mode. But political power in Pakistan is mercurial and slips way too quickly.

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