Imran Khan’s reckless statements can push the establishment more deeply into politics

His tenor has become increasingly blunt after his party’s failed attempt on May 25 to storm the capital and to force the new government to call early elections.


June 9, 2022

ISLAMABAD – THERE was an element of inevitability about Imran Khan’s outburst against the security establishment. He feels dejected at being left midstream without the prop he had become so used to. He now blames his former patrons for all that had gone wrong with his rule.

During a recent interview, he indicated he had responsibility but without full power. In the same breath, he lamented that the establishment did not do anything to thwart the ‘foreign conspiracy’ against his government as the latter decided to stay neutral in the fray.

The former prime minister also warned that the country could “break up into three parts” if the establishment did not take the right decisions. He went further, presenting an even grimmer scenario of its nuclear facilities being removed in the event of an economic collapse.

Such reckless statements by a former prime minister raise serious concerns about his motives. He would prefer military intervention to the political process taking its own course. His destructive populist politics is extremely dangerous not only for democracy but also for national security.

His tenor has become increasingly blunt after his party’s failed attempt on May 25 to storm the capital and to force the new government to call early elections. In his no-holds-barred speeches, the former prime minister has had his guns trained on the security establishment. He is now even implying that the establishment has been part of what he describes as a foreign conspiracy of regime change.

All those remarks by the former prime minister seem full of contradictions. Imran Khan is critical of the military leadership not because he wants the establishment to be out of politics but because he is upset at being abandoned. The campaign by PTI supporters against the establishment manifests the same sentiment.

They are unhappy with the breaking of the hybrid arrangement that provided the critical pivot around which the Imran Khan government had endured. Once establishment loyalists, they are now shouting betrayal. It’s certainly a new phenomenon in Pakistani politics and a dangerous one too. More serious is their designation of favourite generals. Such a campaign is unprecedented.

Indeed, it’s not the first time that the establishment has been under attack. Practically all civilian governments over the past three decades have blamed the security agencies for their ouster and criticised their machinations. The imprint of the establishment on every political change has been visible. In fact, the military has continued to cast its shadow over the country’s political landscape even when it has not been directly in power.

It’s also true that the involvement of the security establishment has been one of the major reasons for the political instability that has weakened the democratic political process in the country. The rise of Imran Khan’s political fortunes owed itself to the political engineering carried out by the establishment. The cricketer-turned-politician was projected as the last best hope that could deliver the promised change.

It was the first experiment in what is described as real hybrid rule in the country. A coalition of disparate political groups was built up to provide support to Imran Khan to form the government. For the first three years, the hybrid arrangement worked well with the imprint of the security establishment all over. In fact, the establishment repeatedly bailed out the government from crises within the ruling coalition and outside.

Imran Khan had then been all praise for the military leadership. Described as a ‘democratic general’, Gen Bajwa was given a three-year extension in office. Imran Khan then had no complaints that he had no power. In fact, he would boast of being on the same page with the establishment.

All was going well until cracks in the hybrid arrangement started emerging last year. The trigger may have been the differences over the appointment of the ISI chief but there were also other issues that together led to the breakdown of the relationship. Beside governance issues, it was the erratic handling of foreign policy that caused further estrangement. Khan’s refusal to work within the parliamentary system and sit with the opposition on critical national issues had increased his government’s dependence on the security establishment.

When the opposition moved a vote of no-confidence against him, Khan sought the support of the army leadership to keep the allies in line as happened in the past. But at that time, no phone calls were made by the powers that be to the rebels to foil the opposition’s move. Indeed, the establishment’s decision to step back may have also encouraged the collapse of the former ruling coalition and defections from the PTI.

But it was also the ousted PM’s arrogance and hubris that caused the fall of his government. Imran Khan’s ‘foreign conspiracy’ mantra was largely meant to salvage the situation and also put the establishment under pressure. It’s evident that Khan wants the military to intervene rather than try and find a solution to the political crisis under a democratic set-up, however weak. In fact, there is a danger that his reckless stance could push the establishment more deeply into politics. The recent development has reinforced the establishment as an arbiter of power.

Imran Khan’s decision to quit the National Assembly indicates that he is not interested in taking a democratic course. One may agree with the contention that it would have been better had the PTI government been allowed to complete its term. Yet the change didn’t come through any extra-constitutional intervention as we have seen in the past.

The vote of no-confidence is part of the democratic process. There is also no truth to the allegation of a foreign conspiracy. Khan may have galvanised his supporters through his populist slogans but his recklessness could also push him into a blind alley. There are no two views about eliminating the role of the security establishment in politics. But this could not be possible with political leaders looking towards other institutions of the state rather than resolving political issues in parliament.

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