Imran Khan On Brink Of Bottomless Pit He Dug For His Opponents
Umer Farooq argues that Prime Minister Imran Khan may experience the same friction with power centres that previous governments witnessed when they were being destabilised.
The happenings and events of the past two months have brought many lessons for Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government – he has started to taste the adversity and friction coming from the direction of other power centres, who appeared benign to him while he was the opposition leader.
The prime minister seems to have reached the brink of that bottomless pit which he dug for his opponents as a pawn of those power centres in 2014 and 2018. What lies for him in the future depends on how skilfully he evades friction with the power centres.
The post-Musharraf realities and dynamics of power in Islamabad are unique – first of all, the parliamentary opposition, not backed by the other power centres in the capital city, poses no threat to the incumbent government. To the contrary, the real friction, opposition and source of embarrassment for the incumbents comes from the power centres have cropped up in the country during and in the wake of the military rule of military dictator, General (r) Pervez Musharraf.
These power centres can use parliamentary opposition parties as proxies in the turf wars that are continuously waged in the power corridors of Islamabad. Just like Imran Khan was used by the military and its intelligence services as a pawn to destabilise the government of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
These power centres are so well entrenched in Islamabad and have so deeply penetrated the society that they can manufacture and launch popular leaders at will, who do their bidding in the national politics.
The most prominent of these powers centres includes the military and its intelligence services, which have always been part of the power structure of the Pakistani state and its society. The judiciary is also among the power centres, which has consolidated its position as one of the dominant players during and in the post-Musharraf period. Lastly, we have the media, which also emerged as a player in the power game during Musharraf’s military rule.
The most potent opposition to the prime minister’s rule comes not from the parliamentary opposition parties, but from these powers centers, which see themselves as part of the governing apparatus of the state, rather, the dominant part of the governing mechanism.
Two incidents could be quoted to prove the point that real opposition to the government comes from these power centres and not from the parliamentary opposition. Firstly, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman’s sit-in fizzled out the moment it was proved beyond any doubt that he didn’t enjoy the backing of any of the power centres.
Secondly, successive verdicts of the courts in recent days, which were perceived by the PTI government to be anti-government, proved more difficult for the government to handle than any of the routine critical statements and speeches made by the opposition.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s party proved more effective in mobilizing its peasant following from Khyber Pukhtunkhawa than any of the major parties with their urban middle-class followers in the cities. However, he made little impact on national politics when the media and political circles realised that no segment of the military establishment was backing the Maulana.
On the other hand, friction in the power corridors was also witnessed when Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, in a strong rebuff to the prime minister, said that the judiciary had in fact convicted one prime minister and disqualified another, while it was about to pronounce a verdict in the case of a military dictator – a too clear an indication that judiciary perceives itself to be power centre in its own right.
The prime minister’s initial response to Lahore High Court’s verdict allowing Nawaz Sharif to travel abroad without any pre-condition spoke volumes about how bitter and embarrassed he felt about the verdict. The court verdict was perceived to be an embarrassment for the PTI government, which was facing a rebellious core constituency, opposed to the idea of sending Nawaz Sharif abroad for treatment. Khan was giving vent to his bitterness when he said that the superior judiciary should try to erase the perception that there is one law for the powerful and another law for the weak.
So, here we have another manifestation of institutional imbalance in the body polity of Pakistan — popular and parliamentary forces are ineffective to the extent of being impotent in the political system, whereas non-elected institutions like the judiciary could deliver a verdict that could lead to embarrassment for the sitting government.
Judiciary is now adjudicating on issues and legal points, which, strictly speaking, comes within the purview of the executive branch of the state. And nobody knows better than Imran Khan what kind of friction between the organs of the state could be caused by jurisdictional overlap. He was the man who facilitated the destabilisation of the government of his predecessor with his cheerleading activities when courts were delivering one verdict after another that were perceived by the PML-N government as anti-government during their tenure in office.
The judiciary under Chief Justice Asif Khosa is not showing any anxiousness as far as its original jurisdiction is concerned. Perhaps that is the reason we don’t see any sensational headlines in the newspaper related to judicial activism. But any prediction about friction between different organs of the state has to be based on the fact that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s capacity to tolerate anti-government verdicts is limited as was amply demonstrated by his angry response to LHC verdict in Nawaz Sharif’s case.
At the same time, Imran Khan should also realise that he owes his present position as prime minister to a series of court verdicts about which his opposition has succeeded in creating major controversies. There is a strong precedent in the country’s jurisprudence to oust the prime minister through a court verdict. This, strictly and technically speaking, can again facilitate the dismissal of a prime minister on technical and legal grounds.
Imran Khan’s capacity to take a position on Nawaz Sharif’s treatment abroad, completely independent from the other power centres speaks volumes about the tendency in his personality to chalk out an independent political course for himself and his party. This indicates that he sees his future and the future of his political party as a distinct and independent political entity and he is confident that he can sustain this course on the basis of support from his core constituency. The repeated assertions of a variety of spokesmen that he is on the same page with the army chief, hardly succeeded in hiding the fact that the two didn’t see eye to eye on the question of sending Nawaz Sharif abroad without attaching any conditions.
The issue of sending Nawaz Sharif abroad for treatment in itself is not such a big issue and does not have the potential to cause a major friction between different organs of the state. It would be totally different situation if (God Forbid) something bad happens to the patient because of his illness. However, now that Nawaz Sharif has safely landed in the hospital of his choice, this issue could be settled amicably.
This episode reveals that Imran Khan has realised that him and his political party are a distinct political entity with distinct political interests and these interests may, from time to time, come into conflict with the realities and interests of other power centers.
As time passes, he will realise that the power centers which used him to destabilise the previous government, saw him as nothing more than a useful pawn all along. These power centres always had distinct political, economic and financial interests in the system, distinct from Imran Khan’s interests. Let’s hope naivety will give way to maturity.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.