Imran Khan’s graceless exit
Leaders come and go, but the manner in which Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted from power through a parliamentary vote of no confidence has no precedent in Pakistani history.
After the opposition had mustered the necessary support of the members of the National Assembly, Khan could have resigned and exited from power with grace. Instead, he chose to cling to power until the last moment by sabotaging the vote of no confidence proceedings, despite a clear verdict from the Supreme Court to complete the voting process on Saturday. A cricket legend who played politics like a T-20 match; he kept the nation on its toes until midnight. His ego seemed bigger than the country he led.
Khan promised to build a new ‘Naya’ Pakistan, a thriving nation free from corruption beyond the dynastic politics of the past. But his nearly four years of narcissistic rule have been so nightmarish that ultimately public representatives opted to vote for Old Pakistan.
Khan leaves behind a nation with deeply polarised politics, an economy nearing collapse, and a foreign policy that has ruptured relations with major powers and trusted allies. Challenges that will be difficult to surmount by his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
Pakistan has a chequered political history. In the past half century, long military rules have been followed by unstable civilian eras. This instability is often the result of the military’s intrusion into politics. The current impasse is no different, except that the alternative leader the generals tried to cultivate eventually became a Frankenstein.
To be sure, the post-Musharraf transition to democracy is different from the previous two such transitions of the 70’s and 90’s in the sense that rapid urbanization in the past couple of decades has produced a middle class that is no longer apolitical. Khan’s personal charm galvanised this class, especially its youth segment, leading to the emergence of PTI as a potent challenge to mainstream political parties, including the PMLN and Pakistan People’s Party.
Instead of focusing on the economy, Khan pursued a vengeful accountability drive against the leaders of PMLN and PPP. Their character assassination by trolls on social media, with unfounded accusations of corruption and treason, has introduced a level of toxicity in politics never seen before.
In the PTI’s rise, the military saw an opportunity to discredit both parties. Thus began the unique experiment of a regime built on the premise that civilian and military leaders would remain on the ‘same page.’ The bargain was that Khan would receive unwavering support from the military leadership and his government would, in return, deliver tangible economic outcomes through better governance. Keeping the opposition at bay was a shared interest.
But this bargain took no time to flicker due to the bad economic start of the Khan regime. It wasted almost a year in negotiating a bailout package with the IMF worth $6 billion, which devaluated the rupee. The subsequent period has seen further economic mismanagement amid the global pandemic, curtailing the GDP growth rate from 5.9% in 2018 to 3.4% this year. IMF conditionalities have led to double digit inflation. Foreign borrowing has raised the debt burden significantly. The economic corridor project with China is derailed. Unemployment has also skyrocketed. There is deep public disillusionment as a result.
Instead of focusing on the economy, Khan pursued a vengeful accountability drive against the leaders of PMLN and PPP, who were hounded and jailed on alleged corruption charges that remain unproven in any court of law. Their character assassination by trolls on social media, with unfounded accusations of corruption and treason, has introduced a level of toxicity in politics never seen before.
Islam has been a convenient tool for both military and civilian leaders to divert public attention from real socio-economic issues. But the way Khan has used his religious narrative to cultivate support among the population has no parallel.
Under no circumstances does the military allow civilian leaders to play with its chain of command, but Khan crossed this red line. He also played the American conspiracy card, using a diplomatic cable from the ex-envoy in Washington to claim the no confidence motion was a US ploy to change his regime. All his opponents, he dubbed traitors.
Without the military’s support, Khan could not have made it to the premiership. Its top brassindeed bet on the wrong horse and may have learned a hard lesson. His reckless subversion of the constitution to keep himself in power has also annoyed the judiciary and, perhaps, a significant chunk of his urban middle class supporters who have already borne the brunt of indirect taxes under PTI rule.
Despite his disgraceful exit from power, Khan retains a cult following among the youth. But with key PTI financiers drifting away and his own accountability about to begin, Khan’s political fate now hangs in the balance. The emergence of PTI as an alternative political force to cater to the rightful aspirations of the middle class was a good thing in the patronage-driven politics of Pakistan. Its demise – at the hands of its own leader – will be quite unfortunate.
- Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who has subsequently served as the Vice Chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford, UK.