The big gamble in Pakistan

Imran Khan's pre-emptive strike plunges Pakistan into political turmoil. Can his cocktail of charisma and demagoguery save him? An India Today cover story

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Imran Khan at a rally in Islamabad on March 27, 2022

His innings had started with breezy cognisance of the helpful conditions. As prime minister of Pakistan since August 2018, Imran Khan would often refer to his government and the country’s powerful army being “on the same page”. And his supporters thought it perfectly normal to gloat about what they referred to as his “hybrid government”—an open acknowledgement that the military was an equal partner in an ostensibly civilian government. Even if Imran made mistakes during his tenure as prime minister—and he made many—he could always rely on the army to back him up and clean up after him. The military tempered not just his erratic governance but also managed the political wheeling-dealing required to keep his rag-tag coalition of allies, his own party ‘electables’ and a boisterous opposition in line. But then, the military stepped back, and the house of cards came crashing down.

His innings had started with breezy cognisance of the helpful conditions. As prime minister of Pakistan since August 2018, Imran Khan would often refer to his government and the country’s powerful army being “on the same page”. And his supporters thought it perfectly normal to gloat about what they referred to as his “hybrid government”—an open acknowledgement that the military was an equal partner in an ostensibly civilian government. Even if Imran made mistakes during his tenure as prime minister—and he made many—he could always rely on the army to back him up and clean up after him. The military tempered not just his erratic governance but also managed the political wheeling-dealing required to keep his rag-tag coalition of allies, his own party ‘electables’ and a boisterous opposition in line. But then, the military stepped back, and the house of cards came crashing down.

Opposition leaders (from left) Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, Shehbaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman at a press conference, Mar. 30; (Photo: AP)

On April 3, facing a near-certain ouster through a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly (NA), Imran orchestrated what can only be termed a farcical face-saver—his hand-picked NA Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri summarily rejected the vote proceedings, claiming a “nexus” between “blatant foreign interference” and the motion. Subsequently, Imran recommended the dissolving of the assembly, thereby ending his three-and-a-half-year-old “hybrid experiment”.

While Imran was a great cricket captain, coalition politics needs different skill sets and he was found wanting, alienating himself from allies and party members

Although Imran did his best to portray losing the prime ministership as a victory, the fact remains that not only was he forced out prematurely from office, he also faces charges of subverting the constitution—from all indications at the time of this writing, the Supreme Court is likely to rule that Imran and his party broke the law and went against the constitution in attempting to illegally dismiss the vote of no confidence. This could yet lead to further legal repercussions.

It has been a dramatic fall from grace for Imran, who thought he could do no wrong. So what did go wrong?

Too big for borrowed boots?

When the former cricket superstar, playboy-turned-philanthropist-turned-Islamist and perennial opposition politician finally swept into power in 2018—after “22 years of political struggle”, as he would keep reminding everyone—most observers felt his had not been an organic victory won fair and square.

It was an open secret among journalists that the military had played a decisive role in breaking away ‘electable’ candidates from other parties and bringing them over to Imran’s side through inducements or pressure. In fact, the covert backing of the military was alleged from at least 2014, when Imran called out large crowds in long-running dharnas to try and topple then PM Nawaz Sharif’s government.

During the PTI’s tenure, inflation, including food inflation, went into double digits, energy prices skyrocketed and the rupee lost about 50 per cent of its value

Similarly, smaller parties were arm-twisted into forming a coalition with Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) after the 2018 election. PTI had emerged as the single-largest party in the NA with 155 seats, but 17 short of the 172 needed for a simple majority to form a government in the 342-member assembly. Imran put together a coalition of seven other parties and an independent member to take the tally to 177, enabling him to lay claim to form the government.

Despite his government’s slim majority in the NA and despite several blunders and crises, the coalition government endured, partly because of a deflated opposition, but mostly because Imran’s real backers did all the trouble-shooting for him. Now, his former allies who have deserted him—such as the mainly Karachi-based Muttaheda Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, which has seven seats and whose move into the opposition camp proved symbolically decisive—openly talk about how they used to receive phone calls from officers within the military ordering them to do certain things in certain situations.

Many political analysts feel the seeds of an eventual split between the military and Imran were sown at the very inception of this “hybrid regime”. Inevitably, they point out, PMs thus installed begin to have delusions of grandeur and think they have actual power to assert themselves. Both Mohammad Khan Junejo under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and Nawaz Sharif in his first tenure came to power on the shoulders of the military and were sent packing when they got too big for their borrowed boots.

In fact, the kind of fulsome backing Imran received from the army as prime minister may have been part of the reason for his eventual downfall. Even as cricket captain, Imran was known to have cultivated an arrogant aloofness. But what may work in cricket may not necessarily work in government: Imran became alienated from many of his party members and allies, interacting with a small kitchen cabinet of close friends.

In a surprisingly harsh television interview at the beginning of the recent political crisis, one of Imran’s main allies, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi—leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) and Speaker of the Punjab Assembly—characterised the PTI’s governance failures as flowing from the government “never learning how to walk because you were never put down and others kept changing your nappies”. When Elahi was asked why others had stopped changing the nappies, he laughed, saying, “because nappies have also become expensive”.

It’s all about the economy

The Imran government’s blunders were most visible in the realm of the economy, which the military had primarily installed him to fix. The PTI’s inexperience in governance was a factor, as were global crises not of its making, like the Covid pandemic and the rise in prices of oil and shipping. But the PTI exacerbated certain crises and created others.

Imran had promised a ‘Naya Pakis­tan’ where 10 million jobs and five million housing units would be provided. Despite much fanfare, they fell well below the targets. The latest Labour Force Survey indicates that so far, 5.5 million new jobs have been created and unemployment stands at 6.3 per cent, up from 5.8 per cent in 2018. In fact, unemployment rates rose everywhere during the PTI’s tenure. The one place they declined was in Sindh province, where it was not in power. The highest unemployment rate—8.8 per cent—is in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the PTI has been in power since 2013.

They had also promised to fix the scourge of corruption within 90 days of coming to power and to improve governance. Here, too, the opposite happened—most businesspeople say the ‘rates’ of corruption had risen, and Pakistan actually slipped 23 places on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index between 2018 and 2022. Meanwhile, corruption allegations about those closest to Imran, including his wife, are leaking out. The government also botched wheat procurement and LNG deals multiple times, which may yet lead to another food and energy crisis this summer.

Imran Khan and Pakistan President Arif Alvi (third from right) at the 2022 Pakistan Day parade with the military top brass; (Photo: AFP)

In terms of governance, Imran appointed four different finance ministers and the turnover in other positions was often even higher, including five or six heads of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). There were such frequent changes in appointments and policy that ‘U-turn’ has become a running joke in Pakistan, synonymous with Imran Khan. The government’s delay in signing on to an IMF programme early in its tenure meant that it had burnt through about $6 billion in loans from China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—almost the same amount as the IMF facility—before it finally accepted that it had no other choice.

Before coming to power, Imran and various PTI leaders had often spoken about the billions of dollars that would come into Pakistan as investments or which they would manage to bring back as “stolen wealth looted by corrupt politicians” such as former PM Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Zardari. They managed neither. In fact, large foreign investment declined and the government was accused, fairly or unfairly, of having caused the flagship multi-billion dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) investment to stall.

Imran and his cohort had also promised to reduce fuel prices and debt. In fact, inflation galloped into double digits over the last three and a half years—it stands at about 12.7 per cent right now—and food inflation has been well above 20 per cent, which impacts the poorest sections of society the most. The Pakistani rupee has lost about 50 per cent of its value since the PTI came to power. Energy prices were increased massively. Debt, too, increased manifold, with the government borrowing more in three and a half years than the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) governments in their tenures combined. The debt-to-GDP ratio went up to almost 87 per cent in 2020, though it now stands at a little over 80 per cent, primarily because of a GDP-rebasing exercise.

While Imran often touts the rise in exports and overseas remittances as his tenure’s success, revenues have not kept pace with the growth of domestic debt. In fact, the rise in FBR tax revenues—from PKR (Pakistani rupee) 3.8 trillion in 2018 to PKR 6.1 trillion in 2022—has mostly been achieved through an intensification of tax collection from existing taxpayers rather than the promised broadening of the tax net. In 2018-19, 55 per cent of Pakistan’s external receipts were eaten up by external financing requirements (interest payments etc.). The government managed to bring that down to 39 per cent in the subsequent two years, but IMF projections show that number is likely to climb back up to 51 per cent this fiscal year and to cross 67 per cent next year. The State Bank of Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves have also dwindled to slightly above $12 billion, just enough for perhaps two months of imports. Even Asad Umar, PTI’s erstwhile planning minister, admits that the external situation will be challenging for whoever comes in as the next finance minister.

Although Imran blamed previous governments for having saddled his government with crippling interest payments, an artificially propped-up exchange rate and unsustainable public utilities, this was cold comfort for the vast majority of people. The failure of Imran’s government to get a grip on the economy, particularly the rising cost of living, was perhaps the key factor in the growing disillusionment whether amongst the people or his erstwhile backers. Certainly, the pandemic did not help. But had the economy been on the up, or even on an even keel, perhaps the rest of the governance problems would not have taken on the larger-than-life proportion as they eventually did. At some point, the military decided it had had enough of hand-holding Imran, especially because the public brickbats were being as much directed towards the army as at the civilian façade.

Imran’s rift with the military

Aside from the general resentment from average folks over the state of inflation and unemployment—often conveyed to enlisted personnel when they returned to their hometowns—the army received a rude shock when former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz began to pointedly target the army leadership by name in late 2020.

In particular, the naming of the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, and ISI head Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed as those responsible for installing and propping up Imran caused much consternation within the military. Not only was it unprecedented for Pakistani politicians to take on the military in such specific terms, of particular concern to Imran’s backers was how much the populist speeches resonated within Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province by population—almost 60 per cent of the country’s total. It is well established that winning Punjab is key for any democratically elected government. It has also often been characterised as being docile to power—most of the military personnel also originate from the province. For Punjab to be seething with discontent set alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power. The military had long been quietly urging Imran to change his hand-picked chief minister of Punjab, Usman Buzdar. Imran had plucked Buzdar out of obscurity and appointed him the chief executive of the province in 2018, much to the surprise of everyone, including his own party members. Hailing from an underdeveloped area of the province and not a member of the PTI before the 2018 election, Buzdar was seen as inexperienced and ineffective and made the contrast between the previous CM Shehbaz Sharif—seen as a doer with a strong grip over the administration—appear even starker.

Imran’s real rupture with the army took place last year, when he resisted gen. Bajwa’s attempt to move Lt Gen. Hameed out of the ISI. He had crossed a red line

The military felt Buzdar was losing Punjab. But despite its continuous urging and rising disaffection within the PTI, Imran refused to budge on his choice and even called Buzdar “Waseem Akram Plus”—a reference to Imran’s one-time fast bowling protege. There was widespread speculation that the appointment had more to do with Imran’s wife Bushra’s ‘spiritual guidance’ and alleged occult practices—a charge Imran strenuously denies. Nevertheless, the friction on this issue continued to linger and grow. As it happened, when push came to shove in the recent crisis, Imran did finally ask Buzdar to resign to accommodate PML-Q’s Elahi in the CM’s slot. Elahi had made a bid to grab the coveted chief ministership as a quid pro quo for continuing to support Imran. But it was much too late. In the words of opposition politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman, “the floodwaters had already gone above the head”.

However, the real rupture with the military took place last year, when Gen. Bajwa attempted to move Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed out of the ISI into a corps posting. On the face of it, it was a normal change of commands. But Imran resisted. He claimed he wanted to retain Gen. Hameed because of the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, but most felt he saw in Gen. Hameed a dependable ally since, as the ISI head, he was the main political manipulator and troubleshooter for the PTI. It was also widely speculated that Imran wanted to appoint him as army chief on the completion of Gen. Bajwa’s extended tenure this November. On the other hand, many saw the move as Gen. Bajwa wanting to row back the political involvement of the army.

With the PTI government’s poor handling of the economy and governance, public brickbats were directed at the army as well

Whatever the truth, Imran’s resistance created a crisis within the army, because a lot of appointments were inordi­nately delayed for over a month. But more than anything, it indicated that Imran was trying to interfere in the internal affairs of the army, crossing an unspoken red line for civilians. He had to back down eventually, but Imran had forfeited the trust he shared with the army. When Gen. Bajwa apparently told Imran earlier this year that the army would henceforth remain “neutral” in politics, he did not take it well. Reports from within the PM’s House indicate he lashed out in private, probably assuming it as a sign that the army was willing to strike a deal with his opponents. He lashed out in public too, without naming anyone. “What is ‘neutral’ [in the fight between good and evil]?” he thundered at a public rally in March. “Only animals are neutral!” Surreptitiously, PTI’s social media troll brigade also began to launch pointed attacks on Gen. Bajwa in particular, further vitiating the atmosphere between the two main power centres in Pakistan.

The denouement and after

PTI insiders are convinced that the army’s top brass ditched Imran and that its ‘neutrality’ stance was a signal to the opposition, since its leaders had long been demanding that the military take concrete action on its claims that it was willing to turn over a new leaf and undo the manipulation it enacted in 2018. Of course, back-channel contacts had long been going on between the PPP, the PML-N and other parties and the military once the latter realised that Pakistan was ungovernable without its support. Imran’s style of governance—served with passionate speeches, contemptuous allegations against his rivals, even outright abuse—simply did not allow any kind of consensus to be built to take parliamentary democracy forward. But Nawaz Sharif’s hardline stance vis-a-vis the military had also been an impediment to a compromise being worked out. Eventually, it seems, his more pragmatic brother, Shehbaz Sharif, and the PPP leader Asif Zardari and chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari seem to have prevailed. They have taken a gamble, however, that the military will stick to its promises on non-interference in political matters.

The opposition fears a rift between its component parties, giving PTI a chance in the next election. The opposition also does not yet have a politician who can match Imran’s personal charisma

Meanwhile, bereft of numbers in parliament and allies, Imran has deci­ded to rouse and galvanise his support base. After banking on building support among the religious conservative segments of the electorate—he has long talked about building a replica of the state of Medina, has tapped into dangerous populist talk on blasphemy and positioned himself domestically as a champion against global Islamophobia—he has now also decided to plug into fiery anti-American rhetoric. Waving what he claimed was “a threatening letter from a foreign country” at a public rally—it was later accepted to be an internal cable of the Foreign Office—he has built a narrative that his ouster is part of an American conspiracy for regime change in Pakistan. He is hoping that, if nothing else, it will cast him as a heroic figure fighting against the forces of global imperialism.

How much that narrative helps him and his party in the election which will be held by the middle of next year at the latest—though it is likely it will take place sooner—remains to be seen. For now, Imran is banking on his demagoguery, desperately hoping people will forget the material failures of his government. He is also hoping that the opposition parties, united against him right now, will fracture once they have to go in for elections against each other, allowing him to pip them to the post in three-way—or more—electoral fights. He also hopes that his controversial laws allowing expatriate Pakistanis, including dual citizenship-holders, to vote from their adopted countries will tip the balance in the PTI’s favour—there are over nine million Pakistanis abroad and an analysis has shown that they could impact a substantial number of constituencies.

But with most of his party’s main financiers having deserted him and without the active backing of the military, it is difficult to see how Imran can put together the party structure needed to win an election in the immediate term, especially if the erstwhile opposition manages to undo some of the more controversial new voting laws. Imran’s undeniable charisma and cult may attract a youthful demographic, especially those who despise the old mainstream parties, but winning elections requires organisation and money more than fusillades of populist rhetoric.

However, the opposition in Pakistan, too, is in a fix. On the one hand, there is the danger that elections will expose the rifts between its component parties, giving Imran’s PTI a chance to squeeze through. On the other, the opposition, particularly the PML-N, fears that the longer things get stretched out before the election, the debris of economic mismanagement in popular perception will shift from Imran on to them.

The opposition also does not yet have a politician who can match Imran’s personal charisma. In the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif and especially Maryam Nawaz do have personal chari­sma, but they are also currently bogged down with pending cases and convictions that have disqualified them from standing for election. They will be looking first to have those overturned before they can participate actively in electoral politics. The likely PM contender, Shehbaz Sharif, is “more like a CEO”, in the words of one of his own party workers. He also has corruption charges pending against him. In the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, despite his popularity among supporters, is still too green and his party has steadily lost support in Punjab and KP, which means the PPP can at best hope to retain its stronghold in Sindh. Meanwhile, Imran will also be hoping that there are no long-term legal repercussions from the Supreme Court findings, even if they go against him. But at least he would have learnt one thing from recent events: if you live by the hybrid sword, you die by the hybrid sword too.