Imran Khan’s Rhetoric All But Destroyed Prospects For Democracy In Pakistan

Imran Khan’s Rhetoric All But Destroyed Prospects For Democracy In Pakistan
Ever since he entered the world of politics more than a quarter century ago, Imran Khan has consistently maintained that he is the only answer to Pakistan’s myriad woes. He has stated over and over again that he is honest and sincere, a man of integrity, who would bring “genuine freedom” to the people of Pakistan by freeing them from the slavery of the two political parties that have dominated the landscape.

When I observed him speak twice in the San Francisco Bay Area during the latter half of General Musharraf’s tenure, he exuded the demeanor of a Greek god. Much of the same self-adulation was evident when he spoke on leadership at the Oxford Union in Britain a few years later.

Compared to his recent speeches, the one at Oxford was short. But even in that short time, he sought to elevate himself to a platform where luminaries like Jinnah, Gandhi and Mandela were seated. He said they were honourable men: people with integrity, who put the nation’s interest above their self-interest. And so was he, unlike the politicians of the two leading parties in Pakistan who were perpetuating dynastic rule, plagued with corruption and incompetence. In that speech, there was no adverse reference to the army, nor any derogatory remarks directed at the army chief. Those were the days when he was trying to find ways to make PTI the King’s Party.

He stated that he was used to fighting against impossible odds, and that’s what he had pulled off when he won the World Cup in Australia and later when he built the cancer hospital in Lahore. At one point, he compared himself to Churchill. He predicted he would sweep the polls during the next election.

He said he drew inspiration from Allama Iqbal’s metaphorical reference to the eagle, which soars above everyone else. Then he offered advice to the young people in the audience. He said a true leader is critical of himself, and because he is venturing into uncharted territory, he will make the occasional mistake but unlike others, he will learn from it.

He did win the general election of 2018, but he did not sweep it. He did not even have a slim majority in the National Assembly. He had to create a coalition to become prime minister and it’s very likely that he did that with the army’s blessings. PTI had become the King’s Party. During his tenure as Prime Minister, he could not tire of saying that he and the army were on the same page. Pictures of him with the top brass were brandished frequently on social media. He was often seen sitting right next to the army chief, General Bajwa. The relationship was so cordial that he extended Bajwa’s tenure with a short letter, justifying it in the name of national security. Little did he know that one day he would come to regret that extension.

As prime minister, he made more U-Turns in the political history of Pakistan than any other prime minister or president. Why? Because he increasingly found it impossible to fulfill the grandiose promises that he had made during the election campaign of 2018. He had promised to create an Islamic Welfare State which would combine Islamic morality with Swedish democracy and Chinese economics.

He failed to eliminate corruption. He also failed to turn the fiscal or trade deficits into surpluses, despite appointing four finance ministers in three years. He was unable to function without resorting to foreign borrowing, something he had said he would never do. Indeed, he borrowed so heavily that Pakistan’s external debt rose by 50%.

In desperation, he visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. He had gone there, he said, in the best interests of Pakistan and wanted to sign a deal that would give him access to natural gas at discounted prices.

But unbeknownst to the public, he and the army had ceased to be on the same page a few months back. General Bajwa distanced himself from Imran. There were no more photo-ops of the army chief and the prime minister. Imran Khan had crossed a redline by interfering in the appointment of generals to senior appointments within the army.

Once he fell afoul of the army, he should have known that PTI would no longer be the King’s Party and his political future would become ambiguous. But his hubris got in the way. He fell from grace faster with the army than anyone could have anticipated. In April 2022, his party lost its majority in the National Assembly and he was removed from office.

That’s not an uncommon occurrence in parliamentary democracies. However, he became intransigent. Instead of accepting the role of the leader of the opposition, he began to subvert the democratic process by forcing his party members from attending the National Assembly.

He launched an aggressive and vituperative public campaign calling on the new government to hold new elections. The hallmark of the campaign was mass rallies in which he lashed out vituperatively at the government. He called them corrupt, dynastic, incompetent and even “the three stooges.”

That was not sufficient. He went on to lambast the US for removing him from office in yet another “regime change” operation. There’s no shortage of anti-American sentiment and the message resonated instantly with millions.

Using ambiguous language, he began to accuse the army of staying “neutral” in his dispute with the government. Later, he started referring to the army as “the neutrals.”

The rhetoric became more direct as time passed. After Gen Bajwa retired, Imran Khan began to say that he was the man who had forced him out of office. Then he upped the ante and said that Gen Bajwa had prevented him from ending corruption. With zest, he now threw the former army under the bus, blaming him for everything that had gone wrong in his tenure, forgetting that it was Gen Bajwa who had installed him in office.

Imran Khan began saying that he was expecting to be killed and that he had prepared a video which would be released if he was killed, showing who had killed him and why. Later, he stopped mentioning the video and began pointing the finger at “Dirty Harry,” which was the code name for a general who was seeking to kill him.

By dishing out such incendiary rhetoric, Imran’s popularity rose to unprecedented heights. Most of his speeches are short on content and long on vitriol. That was the case in his 25 March speech. A reform agenda came at the end, and was hurriedly presented. As far as the public was concerned, they did not care what he said. They had come just to see him and to be counted.

When he was arrested on 9 May, his followers went on an unprecedented rampage. They attacked the house of the Corps Commander in Lahore and the General Headquarters of the Army in Rawalpindi. Did they not expect the army to retaliate? Were they really so naïve? Perhaps they had been brainwashed by Imran’s rhetoric into thinking they were invincible.

Imran Khan was released on bail a few days later and went on a massive PR campaign through interviews with foreign media such as the BBC in the UK and PBS in the US. He also posted an “address to the nation” on YouTube.

A new phrase has now entered his lexicon: the Reichstag Fire. In 1933, Hitler’s supporters put the German parliament building on fire to seize power. Ironically, Imran Khan has got his facts backwards. His supporters were on par with Hitler’s supporters, since they attacked the army’s institutions, just like Hitler’s supporters attacked the German government’s institutions.

But historical niceties don’t matter to Imran Khan or to his followers. Most of them probably don’t know who Dirty Harry was in the Clint Eastwood movie any more than they understand Hitler’s rise to power or how the US actually carries out regime change.

The gloves have come off. Imran Khan is now directly accusing the serving army chief of instigating his downfall by arresting and then releasing his close associates, once they disassociate themselves from his party and quit politics.

Thus far, Imran Khan has stopped short of attacking the army as an organization. He’s just attacking the army chief, hoping to incite a rebellion within the top ranks. Without naming him, he says the army chief is hellbent on instigating his downfall by arresting his close associates and only releasing them after they forswear to quit politics and end their association with PTI.

Imran Khan must know he’s playing with fire. We may be witnessing the last act of a drama which has acquired a distinctly Shakespearean quality. The Economist has written that Imran Khan has lost his battle with the army.

When the King’s party falls out with the King, it’s the party and not the King that loses. In a recent article, Ayesha Siddiqa has astutely observed: “Scenes of people ransacking and torching military buildings or memorabilia are not common in Pakistan, where the armed forces have been the protagonist in power politics for decades. But after all the drama, the Khan saga seems to be moving toward a happy ending for the politically powerful army, popularly referred to as the establishment.”

Imran Khan had a chance to put Pakistan on the right path. But his ego and his unending vilification of his political opponents got in the way. He never accepted the fact that he was incapable of governing a complex country like Pakistan. Contrary to what he said in his speech about leadership at the Oxford Union, he failed to learn from his mistakes nor did he engage in self-criticism.

By his intransigence and pugnacious vocabulary, he ruined not only his own political prospects but also the prospects for democracy in Pakistan. The “genuine freedom” that he spoke tirelessly about seems destined to remain a dream in Pakistan.

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui