Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 03, 2022
Though nobody is sure what will be the outcome of the march to Islamabad, it is clear that Pakistan is in for a period of continued instability
Imran Khan’s long march: Capitulation, chaos or coup Pakistan is at an inflexion point. Like him or lampoon him, Imran Khan has shaken up Pakistan’s power dynamics like never before. For the first time in living memory, a political leader has challenged the might of not only the Pakistani state but also of the Pakistan Army; and for the first time, the mighty Pakistan Army is in a funk, not knowing how to respond to the gauntlet thrown by the Khan. He is openly daring the top brass, calling them names, equating them with traitors, accusing them of sinister conspiracies to unseat him, and unleashing his troll armies to demolish the military’s image. Completely nonplussed by Imran’s no-holds barred assault, the military doesn’t know how to respond. All the Pakistan Army’s traditional intimidation and pressure tactics have come a cropper. Imran has been mobilising people, who are thronging his rallies and cocking a snook at the military establishment. Attempts by the Army to recoup lost image and ground—the unprecedented press conference of the ISI chief is one example—have failed miserably in either reining in Imran or convincing his supporters to desert him. The presser might have impressed Imran’s detractors or even scared some of the fence sitters, but has done little to dampen the enthusiasm, even fanaticism of Imran’s cult.

What’s behind Imran’s derring-do?

With Imran now marching on Islamabad with his Long March to press his demand for an early general election, which he is convinced he will sweep, the stage is set for a showdown. Instead of backing down after it became clear that the military top brass was livid with him, Imran has upped the ante. He has hinted that a revolution is coming and that it remained to be seen whether it will come through a ballot box or through bloodshed. His followers are openly threatening violence. Clearly, there is something happening in Pakistan that nobody is able to put a finger on. After all, the kind of derring-do Imran is indulging in has no real parallel in Pakistan's history – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rebellion against Ayub Khan in the late 1960s was in a completely different setting, context, and circumstance.

Imran has been mobilising people, who are thronging his rallies and cocking a snook at the military establishment.

Many analysts in Pakistan and outside believe that Imran is getting the backing of someone very powerful in the Pakistani system. Without such support, this kind of defiance is inconceivable. Senior politicians, including prime ministers and cabinet ministers, well-known social activists and journalists, have been shut up and shut down for much less by the military, which seems to be cowering in front of Imran. But who can be more powerful than the sitting Army chief and the top generals, including the ISI Chief, all of whom are now visibly opposed to Imran? That Imran suffers from megalomania—he draws parallels between his struggle and that of Islamic icons—and is supremely confident that he enjoys massive public support could be propelling him to take on the military establishment. It is also possible that Imran feels he has run out of options and unless he takes on the military head-on and wins, he will be history. In other words, he is going all in against the Army. If he wins, he rules, maybe even for life; if he doesn’t… in his calculus, that possibility doesn’t exist.

Power Politics of Polarisation

Imran has calculated that he has everything going for him. He has skilfully turned the tables on his political opponents, who are now in a soup trying to clean up the mess he left behind. He has harnessed the anti-Americanism sweeping through Pakistani society by alleging he was deposed in a regime change operation by the Americans. By targeting the military brass, he has captured the anti-establishment sentiment that is always latent. But most importantly, he has polarised Pakistani society and polity into Imran versus anti-Imran camps. What is more, he has divided the society right down the middle, so much so that these divisions are also now affecting the Pakistan military. Imran has openly said that while the generals might be opposing him, their families are supporting him. He has said that he enjoys the support of most middle and junior ranks in the Armed Forces. Many ex-servicemen—including retired generals and other ranks—have, for the first time, gone against their mother organisation to support Imran. This again is unprecedented. Imran is drawing support from not only Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but all other provinces as well. Even a quintessential lackey of the Pakistan Army, like Punjab Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi, is siding with Imran. He might switch sides later, but, for now, he is backing Imran and has even let the famous and powerful Chaudhry clan of Gujrat get divided because of his political affiliation with Imran. The judiciary, which is normally subservient to the military, is not only lenient but also indulgent towards Imran, giving him concessions and breaks on virtually every single issue.

Many analysts in Pakistan and outside believe that Imran is getting the backing of someone very powerful in the Pakistani system.

The Social Base

Imran knows that the ISI chief’s press conference was a clear signal that the Army top brass is in no mood to give in to his demands, much less to his tantrums. But he doesn’t care. He is confident that the Army is scared of his popular support and really cannot do anything against him. The fact that Imran and a large part of his support base comes from Punjab ties the hands of the military, more so because his supporters are not only from among the wretched of the earth, but also from the well-heeled and rich, influential and powerful sections of Punjabi society. It is one thing for the Pakistan Army to massacre Baloch, or butcher the Bengalis, or bludgeon the Sindhis and kill the Pashtuns; quite another to do the same in Punjab. Imran’s supporters are relatives of military officers and soldiers; they are the kith and kin of judges, lawyers, professionals, businessmen, landed gentry… you name it. Using strong arm tactics against these people is easier said than done. This is an entitled section of society, which is visible, voluble, and very vocal. Worse, they are a veritable bunch of zombies, impervious to logic or reason, living in a world of alternate facts, and fanatical in their support for Imran.

Army’s Worst Nightmare

Clearly, the Army is at sea on how to bottle up its Frankenstein’s Monster and its worst nightmare come true. There is a fear that moving against Imran could precipitate a crisis which the Army will not be able to handle – a Pakistani version of the Arab Spring, if you will. The divisions within the Army are also dissuading the top brass from abruptly shutting down their Imran project, which has gone so horribly wrong. The Army brass probably miscalculated and never imagined that Imran will not behave like his predecessors and agree to fade away for some time after being ousted from office. But there is no way the Army can allow Imran to come back to power on his own terms. Imran has committed the unpardonable sin of politicising and dividing the Army. He has ruined Pakistan's relations with important, pivotal countries like Saudi Arabia, China and the US—all of which Pakistan desperately needs to come out of the existential economic crisis it is in. If Imran returns, everything will come unstuck, and that cannot be permitted. Add to this his feckless governance record and the toxicity he has injected in Pakistani polity and society, and it is clear that the Army wants to see his back for the foreseeable future.

The Army brass probably miscalculated and never imagined that Imran will not behave like his predecessors and agree to fade away for some time after being ousted from office.

Coalition’s Calculus

The Army’s calculus is further complicated by the civilian government that replaced Imran’s regime. The Shahbaz Sharif government is also not inclined to concede anything to Imran, either on the selection of the new Army chief or on calling early elections. To do so would be akin to a political suicide. Imran has already swept all the recent bye-elections, including in constituencies which were supposed to be Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) strongholds in Punjab, the real battleground province. An early election will almost certainly be swept by Imran who will reap the benefit of the rising public anger over their sharply deteriorating economic condition. The tough economic steps taken by the PMLN-led government to stave off an imminent default has destroyed their political capital. To recover lost ground, the ruling coalition will want to stay in office till the very last day – late August 2023 – and have elections only in October/November next year. The coalition partners are afraid that if Imran comes back to power, he will wreak havoc on the political system. His Islamo-fascist tendencies will make him convert Pakistan into a one party state. He will do away with the Parliamentary form of government and go for a Presidential system in which he will enjoy unbridled powers. It is also feared that he will sack whoever is the Army Chief and appoint a lackey to the post, converting the Army into a glorified Punjab Police, which will be at his beck and call.

What Next?

The battle-lines are, therefore, clearly drawn. Neither side can afford to back down because that means political death, and worse. The question is what happens from here on. A lot will depend on how many people Imran gathers when his Long March reaches Islamabad. If only 10-20 thousand people turn up, there is no violence, and the crowd sits in the spot designated for them away from the city, then Imran’s move will fizzle out. Chances are that he will lose a big chunk of support. The state will crack down on him and his cronies. And he will suffer a fate similar to some of his predecessors – in Pakistan, it is quite normal for Prime Ministers to go from the PM House to Adiala Jail.

The coalition partners are afraid that if Imran comes back to power, he will wreak havoc on the political system.

However, if Imran manages to get a sizeable crowd—50-100 thousand strong—then the game will be on. A couple of things can happen at that stage: One, Imran creates enough pressure to force the government and the military to capitulate. He gets his early election and Pakistan suffers the consequences that come with that decision. For the military, this will be a repeat of Paltan Maidan, the stadium in Dhaka where Pakistan surrendered to India in 1971. Two, the State and the military refuse to give in, violence breaks out. The authorities are forced to resort to firing to control the crowds and restore law and order. If this happens then the worst case scenario (somewhat far-fetched for now) is that all hell will break loose and there will be chaos – the Arab Spring- like scenes, bloodshed, rebellion, mutiny. In short, a civil war like situation and, perhaps, even an implosion.

Fifth Coup?

Alternatively, it is eminently possible that the Army is forced to intervene directly and takes over control of the country – Pakistan’s fifth coup. The problem is that unlike other coups when the Army intervention was popular, this time it will be extremely unpopular. The Army will not only have to contend with a sullen populace, but will also have to take extremely difficult economic measures to try and rescue the collapsing economy, something that will add to its unpopularity. What is worse, unlike previous coups where the chain of command was clear and the Army chief was the boss, this time it could be different.

The Army will not only have to contend with a sullen populace, but will also have to take extremely difficult economic measures to try and rescue the collapsing economy, something that will add to its unpopularity.

Gen Bajwa is due to retire on November 29. He is already quite unpopular and many of the senior generals are sticking by him partly because they have a legitimate expectation of succeeding him when he retires. His ability to carry out a coup is, therefore, seriously impaired if it means he will not doff his uniform. What is quite likely is that he will hang up his boots and his successor will take over the reins. But, this time, it is quite possible that instead of a generalissimo, it will be a junta that controls the country. If that happens, there is a good chance of the top generals pulling things in different directions. But even if there is a single dictator or a junta that works in conjunction, Pakistan’s problems are only going to escalate. That the current political crisis is happening when the economy is on the verge of bankruptcy and default, terrorism is once again rearing its head, and there is massive devastation caused by floods (Pakistanis seem to have already forgotten about the floods, though they keep reminding the gullible West to fund rehabilitation) only adds to the complexity of restoring a modicum of stability in Pakistan. Simply put, Pakistan is going to remain in a state of chronic instability for the foreseeable future. The next few days and weeks will probably decide the future of Pakistan. But one thing is certain. No matter what happens, Imran Khan has shaken and stirred Pakistan like never before. Most importantly, his onslaught against the Pakistan Army has grievously damaged the power and prestige of the Pakistan Army and opened the flood gates for others to challenge and confront the Army. The Army might still make a comeback and regain some of its primacy in Pakistan's politics, but it won’t be easy because the fear factor has been significantly pared down. The chinks in the military’s armour are now visible and will only grow going forward.

Mixed Bag for India

For India, the evolving situation in Pakistan is a bit of a mixed bag. An unstable Pakistan is good for India. Political instability, economic crisis, and civil-military tensions will keep Pakistan occupied internally and leave it little space to indulge in any adventurism against India. But the problem with instability is that it is very difficult to control it indefinitely. If instability escalates to implosion, its fallout on India will be both unimaginable and unmanageable. Even if that doomsday scenario never unfolds, a Pakistan in which the Army is no longer in control, is a Pakistan which India will find very difficult to deal with because there will be no credible interlocutor left.
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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

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   ...

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