Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan acknowledged on March 29 that he would have to take serious action if he were to survive politically, in the wake of growing opposition to his Government. Imran Khan has enjoyed the support and admiration of people of Pakistan, ever since the height of his cricket career in the 1980s. His cricketing years ended gloriously, with his leading Pakistan to victory in the World Cup in 1992. Nobody, however, expected his political career would end up discredited and challenged.
Imran Khan has an interesting record in his relations with India, which commenced on the cricket field. His first bowling successes against India were during the visit of the Indian team led by Sunil Gavaskar to Pakistan in 1982. There is no question that in his heyday, Imran Khan was amongst the best all-rounders in the world.
Imran’s entry into politics resulted in a much clearer idea of his high ambitions. Already worshipped by cricket fans in Pakistan, Imran also made his reputation as a worthy and affectionate son, by spending years building a hospital in Lahore in memory of his mother. He also portrayed himself as a committed philanthropist, because of the work done in the hospital.
He revealed his political ambitions soon, thereafter, by establishing the Tehreek-e-Insaf party in 1996, to challenge the dominant role of the Bhutto and Sharif families in national politics. Given his impeccable credentials as a national cricketing idol, Imran Khan’s rise in politics was rapid.
While he was regarded in Pakistan as a favourite of the majority Punjabi population, he was a Pashtun, with distinct affiliations to his fellow Pashtuns, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, bordering Afghanistan. Given his support for radical Islamic causes in Pakistan, and for the dreaded Taliban in Afghanistan, Imran Khan soon became popularly known as “Taliban Khan”.
In his years of transformation from a cricketer to his joining politics, Imran became the “Poster Boy” of the Pakistan military, dedicated to Islamist policies worldwide. He was quite comfortable with terrorist groups ranging from the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, to the Afghan Taliban. His “Guru” on terrorist groups and Islamist politics was the former ISI Chief, Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, who was on the US watchlist of “global terrorists.”
General Gul was charged by the US for his links with the Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Despite these developments, Imran Khan’s popularity and political influence grew, and with Army backing, he was elected as Prime Minister in August 2018.
Fed up with Imran Khan’s duplicity, with his continuing backing for the Taliban while simultaneously professing friendship with the US, President Biden decided that this charade should end. He refused to even talk to Imran Khan. The consolation prize for Imran Khan was that he visited Russia, and was received by President Putin. But the return for all his efforts to court Russia has been virtually nil. There have been no new dimensions to Pakistan’s relations with Russia.
Moreover, even the much touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is now on virtual hold, as Pakistan has no resources to fulfil its share of commitments for the project. But Pakistan still remains the principal instrument for implementation of China’s policies of “containment” of India. Military cooperation between Pakistan and China continues.
Imran Khan’s troubles, both domestically and in foreign policy, also continued to grow. His domestic problems started growing exponentially, when he developed an unhealthily close relationship with his ISI Chief, Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed. It soon became apparent that Imran was setting his mind on appointing Faiz Hameed, as the next Army chief. He evidently hoped that in turn, Hameed would facilitate his own re-election, then scheduled for October next year.
Faiz Hameed’s indiscreet behaviour in Kabul on the day the Taliban was taking over power in Kabul, however, enraged the Army chief General Bajwa, who promptly transferred him. Imran, rather unwisely, tried to step into the fray. He was, however, compelled to fall in line and approve the transfer of Faiz Hameed as a Corps Commander of forces on Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan.
Imran Khan was soon struggling to meet the challenges posed by a united Opposition, which inevitably came together formally, to force him out of office by a no-confidence vote in Parliament. The Army chief General Bajwa, duly accompanied by his personally appointed ISI Chief Lt. General Nadeem Anjum, met Imran Khan on March 30. The Army chief made it clear that Imran would have to seek a vote of confidence in Parliament, to avoid nationwide unrest.
What followed has been a dangerous and desperate attempt by Imran Khan, to appear as a martyr, challenged not just by the Pakistan Army and opposition parties, but also by the US. Given Imran Khan’s support for the Taliban, President Biden had refused to talk to him since he assumed office. This was accompanied by some tough talking by senior US officials to Pakistani diplomats and officials. A united Opposition also challenged Imran in Parliament, with a motion of “no confidence”
In these circumstances, there was little hope for Imran to survive any vote of confidence. It was also only natural that the Opposition’s nominee as the new Prime Minister should be the the leader of the largest single party, the Pakistan Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif, who is in virtual exile, in London.
The Muslim League Party is presently led by his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is widely respected and has had a long governmental experience as the Chief Minister of Punjab. He is also a unanimous nominee to head a coalition government, if a new coalition government is formed.
It was in these challenging circumstances that Imran Khan went public against the US, virtually holding the Americans responsible for attempts by the Opposition to unseat him, and by thereafter seeking to dissolve Parliament. This happened almost immediately after General Bajwa had proclaimed: “We have a history of a long and excellent strategic relationship with the United States, which remains our largest export market”.
With his handpicked President dissolving Parliament and calling for elections, Imran Khan’s expectation is that the Supreme Court will agree to hold elections at an early date. He will play a martyr if the Court rules otherwise. Pakistan is in for uncertain and turbulent times.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan