April 2022 marked the end of Imran Khan’s rule as Prime Minister of Pakistan. The discourse surrounding his four-year reign continues even a year after his removal from office. With Khan out on bail and the Pakistani mob mobilised against what they deem to be an unstable civilian government under the control of an authoritarian military, the current state of unrest shrouding Pakistan will only increase in the following days.
The Immediate Cause
The Supreme Court of Pakistan passed a vote of no confidence against the ex-Premier, which, coupled with a loss of support from the coalition formed by eleven opposition parties, left Khan with no choice but to either resign or be elected out of Parliament. Alongside this, Khan also lost the confidence of the seemingly all-powerful Pakistani military whose support brought him to power in 2018. Khan has even gone as far as to openly criticise ex-General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s corrupt inclinations (ironically, it was Khan who re-elected Bajwa for three years after his tenure ended in 2019).
Since then, the Court has slapped the ex-PM with an ongoing 120 cases, including charges like corruption, terrorism, and even blasphemy. Most recently, on 9th May, he was arrested at the Islamabad High Court on charges of corrupt practices in the Al Qadir University Trust Case. Khan was imprisoned for 48 hours for allegedly embezzling millions of Pakistani rupees to build the Al Qadir University Trust.
Malik Riaz, Chairman of Bahria Town, the largest private real estate agency in the country, is accused of having legalised the laundering of 50 billion Pakistani rupees to Khan, his wife Bushra Bibi, and some chief members of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. The National Accountability Bureau had to finally implement his arrest due to a lack of cooperation from the former PM in the investigation process.
The Military-Civilian Clash
Several of Imran Khan’s supporters were riled up by his arrest and took to the streets on 9th May 2023. Violent riots resulted in damage not only to public and private property but also to several military and government installations. Police officers were injured in encounters with the mob at the ex-PM’s Zaman Park residence in Lahore.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has issued strict orders that those involved in such activities be tried under the Army and Official Secrets Act. These charges, if proved could lead to life imprisonment and even capital punishment in the case of some of these offences. Army Chief General Asim Munir declared this decision mere months after ex-General Bajwa proclaimed that it was time to rethink the military’s interference in State affairs and that a balance between the shared role of the two bodies in governance was long overdue.
The Long History of Pakistan’s Military Dependency
This incident comes as no surprise as the Military has been involved in State administration practically since the formation of Pakistan in 1947. Since 1958, Pakistan has witnessed several military coups leading to the dissolution of the government. In fact, no Prime Minister has been able to complete their 5-year term without military intervention, and the country ultimately came under martial law.
The first coup of 1958 replaced President Iskander Mirza with General Ayub Khan. As President, Ayub Khan implemented several changes to the parliamentary system, not the least of which was establishing a presidential form of government. He attempted to abolish the electoral form of government as he did not believe in people’s ability to make advised democratic decisions. He disqualified political parties and public bodies. However, Khan introduced significant improvements to the economy (however inconsequential in the long run), which increased people’s faith in him and in the military’s ability to govern in the long run.
History repeated itself when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won the first general elections in Pakistan and came into power as Prime Minister in 1973. Despite portraying himself as a democratic leader, Bhutto behaved more like a feudal lord, as his policies closely resembled those of military dictators. He failed to establish strong civilian democratic institutions and manipulated the judiciary to serve his political interests. Bhutto’s administration established a civilian Federal Security Force (FSF) with the intention of enhancing internal security within the country, thereby allowing the military to focus primarily on external matters and reducing its influence.
However, the FSF was utilized to suppress Bhutto’s political adversaries and exert additional pressure on military leaders. Moreover, Bhutto resorted to extensive manipulation of the state machinery in order to rig the 1977 elections. Rather than seeking peaceful resolutions to political conflicts, he resorted to force. He suppressed the media, opposition parties, and civil society while also undermining the dignity of the army leadership. He was ousted from the government by the then-General, Zia Ul Haque, who was believed to be a close aide of Bhutto. Once he came to power, Haque suppressed the press and public opinion with an iron hand after coming into power. He ruled as President until his untimely death in 1988.
Likewise, another former PM of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif learned nothing from Bhutto’s mistakes. He made the error of concentrating power instead of focusing on institution-building. The fourth military coup occurred due to escalating tensions between the civilian government and the military, specifically concerning the Kargil War and the disagreement between the President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf. These circumstances led to Musharraf’s coup d’état in October 1999.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court of Pakistan legitimised all the coups. The general public, owing to the turbulence and inefficacy of most of these Prime Ministers, had hardly any faith in the government and let out a sigh of relief with every military triumph which promised stability. The trust in the military had been consolidated over 70 years of Pakistan’s life. It can be traced to the very beginning when the nation’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah handed power to the British over the training and leadership of the Pakistan Army. The British naturally maintained their distance from any matters of national concern and refused army cooperation in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1948.
The autonomous position assumed by the army and its blatant defiance of the civil government was adopted by General Ayub Khan, who was part of the military at the time and later on the leader of the first military coup.
Furthermore, the political leaders sought the army’s assistance in matters concerning the governance of internal and external affairs as it lacked the resources to handle the task. The military was also extremely forthcoming in matters of relief and aid to the citizens during natural calamities and states of emergency. This contributed to the image of incompetence that the State already held, in turn boosting confidence in the military.
The Pakistani military possessed not just professionalism but also a hierarchical structure, and it maintained a separate identity by keeping a certain distance from society. According to Finer, the army developed its distinctive culture, corporate identity, and unity, contributing to its distinct form. Despite maintaining a relatively detached stance from the public, the military’s public perception remained highly favourable.
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How are things different now?
The primary variable that set this equation on its head is Imran Khan. Not only has the ex-PM been in the political spotlight since his ascension to power, but he has also reigned undisputedly in the hearts of millions of Pakistanis as a captain of the national cricket team who brought Pakistan its first and only World Cup in 1992. Khan has always been in the limelight as a populist figure, and he did not hesitate to use this image to his advantage to garner the support and confidence of the main section of Pakistani citizens. Khan’s persona directly opposes the orthodox authoritarianism of the military and Pakistan’s Islamic rule. His tactical moves during and after his term in office appealed to the modern Pakistani populace who follow a policy of disenfranchisement from the catastrophic state of Pakistan’s national standing.
His regular addresses to the people, involving a seemingly candid view on the dictatorial stance of the military and a promise to revise Pakistan’s foreign and economic policy to save the State from further inflation and fiscal crises, all perfectly align with the current state of affairs the country is faced with. The strict guidelines regarding curbing civilian protests undertaken by Shehbaz Sharif’s government and General Asim Munir will hardly help their case. Imran Khan had established his image as the golden boy of Pakistan while also remaining way more accessible to the masses than the military has ever attempted to do. Given the state of national crisis and the repeated antagonisation of the people by State policies, people are ready to overlook the allegations involving corruption levied against him. In addition, the charges of “terrorism” imposed on the rallying protestors are the same ones under which Khan was booked in certain previous occurrences.
As mentioned earlier, all of these instances have concretised the mutual ostracisation that Khan and his compatriots have suffered at the hands of a politicised military and what seems to be an ineffectual State. Shehbaz Sharif is hardly able to build confidence among the Pakistani people due to the rising conflict between the State and civilians amidst a crippling economy. Given the current scenario, people will be more than ready to spot similarities between his government and that of his brother, Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted from government in all 3 of his tenures.
The amalgamation of all these factors has created an encouraging environment for Imran Khan to exercise any further propaganda he has up his sleeve to garner the complete support of the public. Khan has instilled a fear of a threat to their country’s democracy in the hearts of the citizens. Whether that will be enough to win him the upcoming October elections remains to be seen. The economic crisis shrouding the nation should be the utmost priority of whichever group comes to power. It is up to the citizens to decide if they prefer the tradition of firm but stable military control or if they are ready to put all their faith in Khan’s image of being the “people’s PM.”
About the author …
Arunima Sengupta is an Undergraduate student of English and Cultural Studies at Christ University, Bengaluru. Her love for city spaces extends to her research interest which includes Spatiality and Urban Studies from the perspective of literary and cultural theory. Besides being an avid reader, she likes taking long walks and indulging in amateur photography.