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Is Imran Khan’s Luck Running Out?

Zainab Akhter is Research Analyst – Pak Digest at Manohar Parrikar Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 17, 2019

    India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories has radically impacted the internal and external politics of Pakistan. In the aftermath of the decision, Pakistan’s entire state machinery was channelled towards convincing their own people as well as the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) that the Pakistan state would support the Kashmiris on all fronts. This was followed by Prime Minister Imran Khan reiterating his commitment to the Kashmir cause in his address to the legislative assembly in Muzaffarabad on August 14 and again in his address to the nation on August 26. On both occasions, he declared himself as an ambassador of Kashmir and stated that the “whole nation and its government would go to the last extent to support the Kashmiris.” In his address to the nation, he even claimed Pakistan’s diplomatic victory on the Kashmir issue.

    To boost his political image both within the army and at the wider domestic level as well as to divert the national attention away from the brewing internal crisis, Imran Khan found it convenient to ramp up the rhetoric on Kashmir in the coming days. He again visited PoK on September 13, where in his address at Muzaffarabad he reiterated his promise to act as an ambassador for the Kashmir cause and do everything possible to internationalise the issue by raising it in every possible forum. He also urged the people to hold their patience and not to cross the Line of Control (LoC) until he asks them to do so. Nevertheless, within Pakistan, his addresses were mostly labelled as ‘mere speeches’ with no delivery; instead most of the media chose to focus on growing discontent over worsening governance and economic conditions within the country.

    The Imran Khan Government has since raised the Kashmir issue in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) with the help of China, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and in his maiden speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), apart from raising it with countries it considers friendly. He also tried to up the ante by repeatedly threatening the global community of the risk of Kashmir issue snowballing into a nuclear conflict between two South Asian neighbours. His government has even encouraged the non-resident Pakistanis to organise protests in different parts of the world.

    However, these initiatives have not yielded the desired results with the international community more or less endorsing India’s position. India has maintained that the decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir is entirely its internal matter and that the step has been taken to ensure holistic development in the state. As for talks with Pakistan, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has stated that “Talks with Pakistan will be held only if it stops supporting terror. If talks are held with Pakistan, it will now be on PoK.” Subsequently, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stated that “POK is part of India and we expect one day that we will have the physical jurisdiction over it.”

    Meanwhile, the aggressive posture adopted by Pakistan has given the embattled Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led government a breather at a time when the opposition is increasingly vocal about the deteriorating economic situation and poor governance in the country. By raising the pitch on the Kashmir issue, Imran found an opportunity to hide his government’s failure on both internal and external fronts. There are also murmurs about a possible attempt by the opposition to topple the government, especially in the wake of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s plan to organise a long protest march to Islamabad at the end of October this year.

    In view of the growing domestic challenges, where government’s focus is likely to shift away from the Kashmir issue, it is worth examining how the evolving political dynamics within the country could potentially impact the future of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his 13-month old government.

    Growing Domestic Opposition

    It is well-known that the PTI, backed by the military and the judiciary to certain extent, left no stone unturned – before and after the elections – to split up opposition parties, buy loyalties of opposition legislators, and suppress anti-government voices to render them politically ineffective. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has been used as a tool to nab opposition leaders for their past omissions and commissions. The dissenting voices are either being coaxed to join the PTI or incarcerate behind the bars. All kinds of efforts are being made to break them down physically and emotionally.

    In Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan, the all-powerful military continues to pull the strings and very much retains its influence over the domestic, foreign and security polices of the country as well as the judiciary. Two former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and one former president, Asif Ali Zardari, are already behind the bars over allegations of corruption. According to a recent United States Congressional Research Service report, “Many analysts contended that Pakistan’s security services covertly manipulated the country’s domestic politics before and during the election to favor Khan. The PTI-led government has been criticized for unsteadiness and an inability to defy Pakistan’s military or to resolve the country’s fiscal crisis.” A purported ‘military-judiciary nexus’ allegedly came to favour Khan's party.

    The three-year extension granted to the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on the pretext of “regional security environment” by the Imran Khan Government proves the military’s continuing stronghold on the civilian government. It is to be noted that Bajwa had played a vital role not only in strengthening the army’s grip over the civilian government but also the judiciary and security. Referring to Transparency International’s assessment of Pakistan, an article published in the Express Tribune noted that “the current PTI Government’s probe avoided focusing on corruption during the Musharraf era and instead focused on the PPP and PML-N governments.” It also referred to the lopsided nature of the anti-corruption drive launched by the PTI Government and how it “lacks the required political will to enforce long-term measures for rooting out corruption.”

    After grabbing power in two of the four provinces (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab) and allying with a new pro-establishment party in another (Baluchistan), the PTI has attempted to dislodge the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Government in Sindh. This includes a failed attempt to form a forward block within the PPP. There is also a view that the arrest of Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur, including the latest arrest of the senior PPP leader Syed Khursheed Shah, under NAB are an attempt to pressurise the Sindh Government into accepting the federal government’s proposal to introduce local government in Karachi as per Article 140A of the Constitution.

    In the face of stiff resistance from the Sindh Government, an attempt has been made to invoke the executive authority of the federal government vide Article 149 (4) to give directions to Sindh “as to the manner in which the executive authority thereof is to be exercised for the purpose of preventing any grave menace to the peace or tranquility or economic life of Pakistan or any part thereof.” According to the reports, a twelve-member strategic committee having six members each from the PTI and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), headed by Federal Law Minister Farogh Naseem, was formed by Prime Minister Khan to confer on the issue. The Committee suggested that “Karachi’s administrative affairs under Article 149 of the Constitution” should be managed through devolution of power to the local bodies. The PPP Government in Sindh suspects that it is a diabolical move to split Karachi from Sindh in the name of providing better local governance.

    The PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto has accused the government of making attempts to ‘occupy Karachi’. An editorial in Pakistan’s leading English daily, Dawn, has warned about the adverse effects of such a move and argued that “Such a move will set a dangerous precedent, and can be used elsewhere in the country to roll back the gains of the 18th Amendment.” This has stirred the political and intellectual circles in Sindh and the possibility of unrest and protest against the government in the coming days is not ruled out. 

    There are also attempts afoot to split Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) into two factions, one headed by Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, and the other by his younger brother and currently leader of the opposition in the national assembly Shahbaz Sharif. The former is labelled as a radical faction while the later as a moderate one. Media discussions suggest that Shahbaz Sharif is considered amenable to the army and is being persuaded to come on board in favour of the ruling government. There are also strong rumours about both Nawaz and Maryam being offered a deal to leave the country and settle abroad. An Urdu newspaper, Ummat, has even hinted at the possibility of foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), during their recent visits to Pakistan, having advised Imran Khan to go soft on Nawaz Sharif. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif has reiterated his support for JUI-F’s long march on Islamabad. He recently wrote a letter to his brother and president of PML-N, Shahbaz Sharif, asking the party leaders and workers to “ensure that the anti-government protest (Azadi March) is a success.”

    Adding to the troubles of the PTI-led government, doctors across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took out protest rallies towards the end of September against the Regional and District Health Authorities Act, 2019 that in short talks about the privatisation of the government hospitals, and was passed recently in the provincial assembly. Moreover, in the first week of October, after failed attempts to negotiate with the government over the complexities of documentation through the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), the small traders and businessmen also came out on the streets of Islamabad to register their protest against the government on the issue. Meanwhile, the All-Pakistan Anjuman-i-Tajiran (APAT) has already announced a countrywide shutter-down strike on October 28 and 29, almost coinciding with the ‘Azadi March’ starting on October 27.

    Maulana’s Long March to Islamabad

    The JUI-F chief Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman has been the most vocal critic of the PTI Government ever since it assumed office. In an effort to bring opposition parties under one umbrella, he had convened the first-ever all parties conference (APC) on June 26 this year in Islamabad. This was the first occasion for the opposition to put up a united front against the PTI Government and where seeds of a possible anti-government protest campaign from a single platform were sown. Before this meeting, Maulana had hinted at a possible Long March (Azadi March) or October Revolution in Islamabad led by the JUI-F and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in an interview on Capital Talk with Hamid Mir in July.

    Recently, Maulana stated that “We have decided to enter Islamabad on October 31.” He had earlier claimed that along with the other opposition parties he will be able to mobilise more than ten lakh protestors to take part in the Long March to expose the real face of Imran Khan and his government. According to a Pakistani political commentator, Imad Zafar, Maulana might have the covert backing of certain sections within the security establishment who want to dismantle the Imran Khan Government. He added that “These people are angry over the Kashmir fiasco and the political engineering that resulted in the current political and economic turmoil in Pakistan.”

    The PTI-led government has dismissed the JUI chief’s statement saying that brainwashing a few madrassa students and provoking them against the government in the name of religion is totally unacceptable. Nevertheless, the government betrayed its nervousness when it stopped Maulana’s interview to the Geo NewsJirga with Saleem Safi – from going on air.

    However, with the idea of a Long March gaining momentum, the PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto’s statement not to take part in the planned sit-in at Islamabad came as a set back to the Maulana. While extending moral and political support to the Long March, Bilawal plans to travel to all parts of the country to make people aware of the failures of the Imran Khan administration, which he labelled as a puppet government. It is likely that Imran Khan’s government will face increasing flak in future on account of its failure to garner greater international support on the Kashmir issue as well as inability to deal with burgeoning economic crisis in the country.


    Any effort by Pakistan to over-activate terror launch pads in order to draw world’s attention to the Kashmir issue can prove counter-productive for the Imran Khan Government. A protracted military engagement with India can worsen the political and economic crises at home. Moreover, Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror could result in it being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that will not only lead to international calumny but also restrict the flow of foreign funds for the cash strapped Pakistani economy.

    Meanwhile, internally, if the government decides to tinker with the status of Karachi, there could be a massive uprising in Sindh. Also, the Long March together with Bilawal’s parallel country-wide tour, and with protests by doctors and traders gaining momentum, could unleash a political storm that may not be easy for an increasingly isolated PTI Government to weather. For now, with a failing foreign policy and a crippling economy, and growing domestic opposition as well as criticism within the army, Imran Khan and his government is clearly caught between the devil and the deep sea.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.