Imran Khan on the back foot

A host of economic and political challenges force Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to be on the defensive.

Published : Dec 22, 2019 07:00 IST

Prime Minister Imran Khan at the inauguration of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur on November 9.

Prime Minister Imran Khan at the inauguration of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur on November 9.

Imran Khan’s political honeymoon period with the Pakistani public seems to be coming to an end a year after he assumed power. The economy continues to falter and the threat of international sanctions over alleged linkages between the state and proscribed terror groups is looming.

The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has expressed “serious concerns with the overall lack of progress by Pakistan” in addressing the issue of terrorism financing and money laundering. The country is on the FATF’s “grey list” until February 2020. If the FATF is not satisfied with the progress Islamabad has made on the issue by then, it will be put on the “black list”, which will make the country highly vulnerable to international sanctions. As it is, being on the “grey list” has made it more expensive for the government to raise money on the international bond market at a time when the country faces a severe debt crisis.

Pakistan has been witnessing a spate of protests in the past couple of months. The latest one was when students from all over the country took to the streets demanding the restoration of their right to form student unions. Student unions were banned by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1984. Since then there have been no avenues for students to protest against issues such as fee hikes, sexual harassment and the quality of education on offer in the country.

The student solidarity march on November 29 occurred simultaneously in 50 cities and towns, including Karachi and Lahore. The leadership of the student movement is with left-wing groups such as the Progressive Students Collective. The students carried red banners. Trade union groups have also supported the resurgent student movement. The police used strong-arm methods against the protesters and arrested many student leaders and activists. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)-dictated austerity measures have alienated the Pakistani public. In May, the IMF had given a multibillion-dollar bailout package to rescue the economy but with tough conditions. The devaluation of the Pakistani rupee and the reduction of imports coupled with a massive hike in power tariffs have helped bridge the current account deficit but plunged domestic industries into a deep crisis.

The unemployment numbers and the inflation rate are rising every month. The GDP rate is expected to grow by only 2.8 per cent in 2020. The Pakistani rupee has lost a third of its value since Imran Khan took over. There are reports that even influential sections in the Pakistani military establishment have started to be wary of the government’s handling of the economy. The military, besides appropriating a large chunk of the national budget for defence, has a large stake in the country’s economy.

Large-scale public protests

On the political front, the government has had to face serious challenges. The two main opposition parties, although vociferous in their criticism of the government, have shied away from organising large-scale public protests. The first big protest against the Imran Khan government soon after it completed its first year in office was organised by a religious party. An “Azadi march” led by the politician cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman brought thousands of his supporters to Islamabad in November. Women were pointedly excluded from joining the march.

The cleric, who is the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-I-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) party, lost his seat in Parliament for the first time in the previous election to a candidate from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The veteran politician had pledged that he and his supporters would end the siege of the Pakistani capital only after forcing Imran Khan to resign. The siege paralysed parts of the capital for two weeks, but the Maulana finally beat a retreat mainly owing to lack of support from the main opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or the PML (N), and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Though the two parties supported the demands of the Maulana, they refused to participate in the march to the capital. Many progressive and secular Pakistanis did not want to openly associate with the Islamists. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the PPP co-chairman, had openly warned about the dangers of joining hands with a self-professed Islamist like the Maulana. Before leaving Islamabad with his followers, Maulana Fazlur predicted that the days of the PTI government were numbered.

During his days in the opposition, Imran Khan too had paralysed the capital by bringing in thousands of his supporters. He is said to have had more than a little bit of support from the Pakistani military establishment. The Pakistan Army started undermining Nawaz Sharif as soon as he took office once again in 2013. The military establishment viewed Sharif’s goal of permanently establishing civilian supremacy over the army with alarm. It found a willing accomplice in its game plan to undermine the political legitimacy of its new bete noire , Nawaz Sharif, in the person of Imran Khan.

When PTI supporters first marched on Islamabad, the charge against Sharif was that he had “stolen” the 2013 elections. Now the opposition and Maulana Fazlur are making the same charge against Imran and the PTI.

There are reasons to believe that the 2018 elections were far from fair and free. The army leadership played a blatantly partisan role in helping Imran Khan ascend to the Prime Minister’s post. Maulana Fazlur’s party, along with the rest of the opposition, has long been claiming that Imran Khan won the elections through “rigging” facilitated by the army. He claims that he is fighting for “the survival of real democracy” in the country.

Since taking over, Imran Khan, with the help of the army and the security services, has succeeded in cowing down the media to a great extent. Unlike in India, the media in Pakistan have always adopted a feisty attitude towards those in power. The crackdown on the independent media, which include reputed publications such as the Dawn newspaper, has been a factor that has contributed to the general disillusionment among the intelligentsia and the media with the government.

The targeting of opposition political leaders on alleged charges of corruption was taken to unprecedented heights after Imran Khan took over. Sharif, hounded out of office before he could complete his term, was apparently unfairly targeted along with other senior members of the PML-N. No clinching evidence has been produced so far to justify his incarceration. The former Prime Minister had come back from London where he was undergoing medical treatment before the 2018 elections, only to serve a seven-year jail term meted out to him by a compliant judiciary.

The government was forced to let Sharif out of jail because of his failing health. He is currently in London undergoing treatment but remains defiant. Another former head of state, the military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has been evading his day of reckoning in Pakistani courts with the tacit help of the Pakistani deep state. He was allowed to leave the country even as legal cases against him were piling up on a host of issues, ranging from the illegal usurpation of power to corruption.

The decision to let Sharif return to London for treatment also got enmeshed in controversy. The Prime Minister, after giving the green signal for Sharif to go abroad, said that he should sign an indemnity bond of Rs.7.5 billion to guarantee his return to the country to serve out the remainder of his term. Sharif refused point-blank to agree to the terms. A High Court judge allowed him to leave the country without preconditions. This development made Imran Khan cast aspersions on the judiciary, prompting the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Asif Saeed Khosa, to point out that it was the Prime Minister who had lifted the travel ban imposed on Sharif.

Sharif remains the undisputed leader of his party and seems determined to carry on the fight for civilian supremacy in the politics of his country to the end. His daughter, Maryam, who has emerged as a leader in her own right, has been attracting large crowds all over Pakistan while addressing political rallies. She too has been critical of the nexus between the ruling party and the military. The leader of the PPP, Asif Zardari, has also been put behind bars on charges of corruption. Bilawal Bhutto has accused the government of carrying out the politics of vendetta against the opposition. He was the first to describe Imran Khan as a “selected” Prime Minister, not an elected one.

In thrall to military

That Imran Khan continues to be in thrall to the military establishment was illustrated by his decision to give the current army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, a three-year extension of service. To the surprise of many observers, the Supreme Court allowed a petition challenging the decision to be heard. The court ruled that the Prime Minister had erred in not getting the recommendation for the extension duly signed by the President of Pakistan, as required by the Constitution.

The court also underlined the fact that the Pakistan Army rules had no provision for a service chief’s term to be extended unilaterally. It described the government’s argument citing “the regional security situation” as a reason for the extension as “quite vague”. It, however, gave the army chief a six-month extension, giving the government enough time to fulfil all legal and constitutional formalities to ensure that Gen. Bajwa serves three more years as the country’s all-powerful army chief.

This was the first time that the Supreme Court ruled on an issue relating to an all-powerful army chief. Previous extensions given to army chiefs went unquestioned. After all, the army has ruled the country for more years than civilian governments have since its independence.

Many in Pakistan view Gen. Bajwa as a kind of mentor to Imran Khan, guiding him through the minefield that Pakistan politics is today. In many countries, the army chief is given the kind of importance befitting a head of state. Before Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India, Bajwa had visited Beijing for talks. He had a meeting with the Chinese President.

Bajwa is also being projected as a great military tactician. The so-called “Bajwa doctrine”, according to the Director of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, aims at preventing a resurgence of militancy, preventing terrorists from freely moving along the Pak-Afghan border, and making Pakistan a terrorism- and militancy-free country. Both the army chief and the Prime Minister have been saying that the support for militants has turned out to be counterproductive for the country.

The recently opened Kartarpur corridor is said to be Bajwa’s brainchild. Indian intelligence agencies are aware that one of the motivations behind the opening of the corridor is to encourage the notion of “Punjabiyat” that would bring the culturally close but divided parts of the Punjab closer. Indian intelligence agencies are suspicious of the general’s motivations. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has accused the general of having ulterior motives in greenlighting the Kartarpur corridor.

The extension given to Bajwa may be related to the developments in Kashmir. It should be remembered that he had tried to reach out to India two years ago in an effort to restart talks and normalise bilateral relations. He said last year that the only way to achieve peace between the two countries was through dialogue.

After the “status quo” in Kashmir was changed by the Indian government, Islamabad urged militant groups to desist from stirring the pot in Kashmir. The Pakistan government, for the time being, is focussing on the diplomatic offensive it has launched in international forums on the Kashmir issue.

Many governments have openly criticised India’s handling of the Kashmir issue. Even close allies of India, like Japan, have said that they are closely monitoring the humanitarian situation in Kashmir. Both Imran Khan and Gen. Bajwa have prioritised the bailing out of the economy over continuing the rivalry with India, despite Kashmir being a highly emotive issue in the country.

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