Imran Khan Pakistani politics’ enfant terrible

The writer says Imran Khan's authoritarian mindset, self-righteousness and lack of understanding of statecraft were the main reasons behind his downfall, and not an external conspiracy.


April 14, 2022

DHAKA – THE en masse resignation of PTI MNAs, except for the dissidents, from the National Assembly is not surprising. It is in character with former prime minister Imran Khan’s maverick style of politics. It appears that he would rather wreck the system than accept the humiliation of being ousted. Even a democratic change is not acceptable to his ego. By quitting the National Assembly, he seeks to dismantle the entire edifice. Even in government, the former prime minister never really descended from his container.

The election of Shehbaz Sharif as the new prime minister has given an ironic twist to the country’s chequered politics. It is seen as the restoration of the old order after a three-and-a-half-year experiment with ‘naya Pakistan’. A major challenge for the new government is to bring political stability to the country and curb the economic slide. The challenge demands tough measures to prevent an economic meltdown.

More importantly, the Sharif government needs to work on easing the prevailing polarisation in the country. The transfer of power may have ended the uncertainty that has gripped the country for the past several weeks, but the political crisis is far from over. It will be extremely difficult for a coalition made up of disparate political parties, with varying political agendas, to deliver. But an inclusive government could help build bridges.

In his first speech after being elected, the new prime minister set a clear agenda for his administration that may continue till the end of the year before general elections are called. Surely, the economy is on top of the list of priorities. But it is equally important to reset the country’s foreign policy that had lost its sense of direction under Khan.

The former PM’s actions were proof of his contempt for the constitutional process.

It’s a good decision on the part of the new prime minister to urgently call a meeting of parliament’s security committee to probe the allegations of a foreign conspiracy to accomplish regime change. There may not be any truth to this theory, but it is imperative to clear the false narrative built around a cable from a former ambassador to Washington. The episode has damaged the country’s image internationally, with political implications at home. The issue has been used by the PTI government to subvert the Constitution.

What happened over the past week plunged the country into a constitutional crisis. Khan’s actions were proof of his contempt for the constitutional process. It may have seemed that he ‘accepted’ the Supreme Court ruling that declared the April 3 dissolution of the National Assembly illegal, but the reality was different. The high drama that unfolded on April 9 in the Assembly, ahead of the no-confidence vote, showed his defiance of the law.

Every effort was made by his party to filibuster the proceedings of the National Assembly, and it was only minutes before the deadline set by the Supreme Court expired that the vote was called. The threat of imminent court action forced the Speaker to back down. It was a disgraceful exit from office by a leader who has never stopped lecturing on Western democratic values and morality.

The false narrative of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ against the Khan government failed to prevent the unravelling of the former ruling coalition and stop defections from the erstwhile prime minister’s own party. His decision to quit the National Assembly is yet another example of his recklessness.

Now it is back to the ‘container’, marking the beginning of what he describes as a ‘freedom struggle’ against the ‘foreign conspiracy of regime change’. He vows to bring down what he calls an ‘imported regime’. Such populist ultra-nationalist rhetoric has galvanised his supporters, as evident from the large public rallies across the country. But that cannot change the political dynamics. Given the long history of external involvement in Pakistani politics, many among the educated urban middle class tend to believe in the ‘foreign conspiracy’ narrative. Support for Imran Khan has certainly soared but it cannot be seen as a game changer. Many of his supporters equate the countrywide demonstrations with the so-called Arab Spring that brought down some authoritarian dispensations in the Middle East. Nothing could be more delusionary than to draw such a parallel.

A major question is whether Imran Khan can build and sustain a mass movement to force the new government to call early elections. His single-track strategy has neither worked in the past nor can it succeed now, with the country’s changing social dynamics. He seems to have learnt no lesson from his 2014 dharna that failed to disrupt the system, despite some tacit support from a section of the security establishment.

The PTI’s decision to resign from the Assembly will leave the parliamentary field open to his rivals and could further divide the party. Absence from parliament can adversely affect the party’s electoral base, with a few months left for the general elections.

It is debatable if Khan himself has ever believed in the parliamentary process. He seldom attended Assembly sessions. There is no instance in Pakistan where a ruling party acted like an opposition party. For Khan, every other political leader is corrupt and he would rather not sit with them. His biggest failure was his inability to work within the system. His governance capacity was limited as evident by his arbitrary decisions and frequent changes in his team.

His authoritarian mindset, self-righteousness and lack of understanding of statecraft were the main reasons behind his downfall, and not an external conspiracy. He survived in power for as long as he did, despite heading a minority government because of the prop provided by the security establishment. It fell as soon as the crutches were removed. But even though the hybrid rule has ended, Imran Khan’s reckless politics and populist rhetoric will continue to haunt the country.

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