Despite all the crackdown against Imran, he is arguably more popular today than ever
Imran Khan was allowed to rabble rouse the streets of Pakistan, and hurl accusations, including of treachery and betrayal against the serving army chief, Gen Asim Munir.There are two sides to Imran’s conviction and imprisonment in the Toshakhana case—legal and political. Legally, it was a slam dunk against Imran who was held guilty of having “committed the offence of corrupt practices by making and publishing false statements/declaration in respect of assets acquired by way of gifts from Toshakhana”. While Imran has been arrested and sent to jail for three years, he will almost certainly appeal the verdict in the higher courts where he expects to win relief. One of the pleas that Imran’s lawyers will take is that the verdict of the trial court was delivered in haste and he was denied a fair trial as he wasn’t provided the opportunity to defend himself. He is counting on the fact that the judges of the superior judiciary will show a lot of bias in his favour. But even here the truth is slightly more complicated than it appears. The fact is that Imran has used evasive and dilatory tactics to avoid being prosecuted. The trial court judge Humayun Dilawar was, however, not ready to endlessly let Imran delay the case. There are of course allegations of bias made against the judge whose Facebook page has a few anti-Imran posts. But purely on the merits of the case, the evidence against Imran was unimpeachable.
One of the pleas that Imran’s lawyers will take is that the verdict of the trial court was delivered in haste and he was denied a fair trial as he wasn’t provided the opportunity to defend himself.While morally what Imran did in the Toshakhana case was repugnant—selling gifts he received from other heads of state for personal profit and enrichment —and legally, Imran is guilty as charged for hiding the proceeds of the sale of these valuable items, politically, he continues to remain the central pole of Pakistani politics. This verdict doesn’t really affect his popularity. But the fact that his conviction means disqualification for five years leaves him out in the cold. Again, he and his supporters expected this verdict, and are convinced this is just the start of the process of cancelling Imran Khan from an active role in politics for the foreseeable future—at least until Gen Asim Munir remains as the chief of army staff which could be until 2025 or even 2028 if he gets an extension which has become something of a norm in Pakistan. This legal knockout should make it easy for the other parties to take part in the next elections without worrying too much about the Imran factor. After all his party has been reduced to a shell. All notable and electable leaders have deserted him and set up their own factions like the Istehkam Pakistan Party (IPP) led by Jehangir Tareen and PTI-Parliamentarians led by Imran’s school buddy and the former Chief Minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and also former defence minister.
Imran’s core support base remains intact while his adversaries will be splitting the anti-Imran vote.The problem, however, is that despite all the crackdown against Imran, he is arguably more popular today than ever. Three things have worked in his favour: 1) his defiance: Pakistanis love someone who stands up to the superior force and doesn’t back down; 2) the mismanagement of the economy by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar which has inflicted enormous distress on the people and made life impossible; 3) the fact that Imran’s core support base remains intact while his adversaries will be splitting the anti-Imran vote. Interestingly, even the desertions from his party haven’t really dented his support base. In fact, the IPP or PTI-P don’t seem to have made any real waves at the ground level. They are uninspiring and have simply failed to capture the electorate's imagination. The lack of confidence among those who deserted Imran is quite apparent from a tweet of a top IPP leader who said that elections won’t offer any solutions because if Imran loses, he won’t accept the results and if he wins (implicitly admitting that this is within the realm of possibility), he will unleash repression against not only his political opponents but also the military establishment (where he still enjoys support), the media, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy. The fear in the anti-Imran cohort is that he could upset all the calculations even if he was disqualified. In other words, he could pull a surprise of the sorts that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto pulled in 1970 when completely unknown candidates of Bhutto’s party defeated well-entrenched traditional politicians. This means that it is not enough to load the dice against Imran; either he is totally neutered politically or the election results are pre-decided and everyone only goes through the motion of a ‘free and fair’ election (which in any case has never happened after 1970. All this is assuming that the elections actually take place and there isn’t a prolonged caretaker government under one pretext or another.
The fear in the anti-Imran cohort is that he could upset all the calculations even if he was disqualified.A blatantly rigged election will, of course, have its own repercussions on Pakistan's politics. Cynics will argue that nothing has changed in Pakistan and just as previous elections were fixed in favour of one or another party, the same can be done this time. This means Imran Khan is history. But what if something has indeed changed in Pakistan? After all, when in the last 75 years did anyone see a politician stand up against the military, split not only the army but also every institution and create a support base that actually took on the military? The semblance of political stability that appears on the surface could get very badly disturbed if the streets erupt in the event of a rigged election. And if polls are delayed by more than a few weeks, the military could see resistance even from the politicians currently lying prostrate before the generals to curry favour.
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Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador ...Read More +