Beyond Rhetoric: Why Imran Khan Does Not Pose A Serious Challenge To Military Hegemony

Beyond Rhetoric: Why Imran Khan Does Not Pose A Serious Challenge To Military Hegemony
Only five years back, the Western media was churning out cartoons in which Imran Khan was depicted as a toddler who was properly looked after by a larger-than-life caricature of a fully decorated hefty Pakistani general. The same media is now describing Imran Khan as the biggest domestic challenge that Pakistani generals have been facing. During Imran Khan’s four-year rule, he was often jokingly dubbed the son and General Bajwa the patriarch. Imran Khan has a very effective propaganda machinery at his beck and call. An effective anti-military propaganda campaign by this machinery has transformed the political image of Khan from a lowly creature of the Pakistani intelligence to an effective and formidable challenge to the military's dominance of the political system. At least this is the impression one gets after reading the London Economist's latest analysis of the current political crisis in the country.

There is a general impression that Imran Khan’s political and propaganda campaigns have created awareness among the Pakistani masses about machinations and intrigues that are the hallmark of the military’s role in the political system. We are told that now the common person in Pakistan not only knows what generals do to elected prime ministers, but also they are fully mobilised against the military's dominance of the system.

This is a very simplistic interpretation of what is going on in Pakistani society. To be sure, it is beyond doubt that Imran Khan is riding a wave of middle-class sympathy in central Punjab and urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Today’s political environment is highly charged—what we are witnessing is a political upheaval in the heart of the Pakistan's political and military core, central Punjab.

The last time when a social and political upheaval of this nature happened in central Punjab was in Ayub Khan’s era. Back then, after many state-induced agriculture revolutions in rural Punjab and Sindh, a large number of landless tenants had migrated to urban areas and became daily wagers in the burgeoning industrial sector. Bhutto cashed on this process of social change or upheaval, and became the voice of this multitude. What Imran Khan is cashing is the discontent of the Punjabi middle classes, whose status is either threatened or has been eroded by the twin factors of joblessness and increasing inflation and price hike. Remember: these are highly malleable classes as far as their political opinions are concerned.

They supported the Islamisation of the Zia era, and later, went along well with the campaign of “Enlightened Moderation” launched by more ‘secular’-minded General Pervez Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif was their favourite from 1993 till 2013. They supported the democracy-oriented political morality espoused by Sharif after his return from exile in 2008. Now they seem to be attracted towards the apparently non-political or rather anti-political rhetoric of Imran Khan.

In all these periods, middle-class opinion and support revolved around two seemingly related trends.

Firstly, they are attracted towards power. In this they are ready to bandwagon with anyone who is in power or who is likely to attain power – or even someone who makes a successful bid to oppose, confront or criticise someone in power. Punjab, particularly, is a highly power-oriented society. Voters in central Punjab are normally attracted towards anyone who is in some kind of symbiotic relationship with power or the powerful. The flip side of this political phenomenon is that the Pakistani masses have developed an anti-incumbency political tendency. In the post-Musharraf period, the ruling party has always lost the general elections. The result of growing anti-incumbency in public opinion is the fact the favorites are those who confront power and the powerful. Imran Khan didn’t have to make much effort in developing and projecting his anti-army campaign in the wake of his ouster from power. Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has already paved the way for him to run such a campaign smoothly and without any hindrance from the state machinery and society.

The other relevant trend is the susceptibility of areas which Imran Khan has mobilised to the latest fashion trends. That is a process that can drown – and has indeed drowned – many serious political ideas and movements in the sea of the latest social, cultural trends and fashions.

Moreover, there are two reasons why Imran Khan doesn’t pose a serious and formidable challenge to the military's dominance of the system.

Firstly, Imran Khan doesn’t possess a working plan or an idea for civilian supremacy or for putting an end to the military dominance of the power structure or the system. In fact, his central political beliefs don’t include the notion of civilian supremacy as a political objective. If his speeches, interviews and media statements are any guide, he doesn’t even believe in civilian supremacy as an ideal. For instance, since his ouster from power he has repeatedly criticised the military leadership for not siding with him in the political crisis that his government faced. Imran Khan has no qualms about expressing his anger with military leadership for not siding with him when the opposition voted him out of power through a no confidence motion in the national assembly:

“Ok, let’s say for the sake of argument that the military establishment has not conspired against me. Let’s assume that I agree with this notion. But they could have stopped the conspiracy against me. Why didn't they intervene to stop the conspiracy?” Imran Khan argued in his latest speech.

Little does he realise that if military leaders had intervened and prevented the no-confidence motion, they would have become a party to the political conflict. After all, it was not the opposition leader in the Indian parliament who had submitted the no-confidence against Imran Khan! Without a clear and oft-stated political objective of civilian supremacy, no one in our society could pose a serious challenge to the military’s dominance of the system.

All that Imran Khan wants is for the political capacity of the military and its intelligence services to be made available to him, so that he could deal with his opponents more effectively. This is a path which will lead to further strengthening the grip of the military on power structures.

The second reason why Imran Khan’s anti-military campaign doesn’t pose any serious challenge is the malleability of public opinion in central Punjab. No serious political ideology has ever taken root in this area since the time of independence. Military dictator General Zia promoted the trend of over-production of sleazy Punjabi feature movies in which violence was the dominant trend to keep masses from joining the PPP-led Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the early 1980s.

In this situation, Imran Khan’s desperation to put maximum pressure on the government and military to secure the promise of an early election appears understandable. He knows he won’t be able to keep the momentum of anti-military rhetoric for long: primarily because there is every chance that the malleable public opinion in the areas of central Punjab, which he has successfully mobilised, could shift its focus towards any other fashionable trend. And this fashionable trend could be completely apolitical in nature. In such a situation, the military would have smooth sailing once again and Imran Khan would be left high and dry. There are many occasions in the past when the military moulded public opinion – especially when the chips were down for them.

In short, an anti-military campaign without a clearly stated objective for civilian supremacy is not a serious political enterprise.

It is either opportunistic, i.e. to bring the military leadership under pressure and thus secure political favours, as is obvious in the cases of Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif - both of whom in their own way wanted the military to facilitate their bid for power -; or, it is a recipe for disaster: breaking the myth of the military's dominance without proposing any substantive political myth or system to replace it.

And that is more like a road that leads straight to a hellish anarchy.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.