High Stakes: Imran Khan Versus Pakistan's Political System

High Stakes: Imran Khan Versus Pakistan's Political System
Imran Khan could singlehandedly destroy Pakistan’s political system. Let us consider how.

Only a few days after former Prime Minister Imran Khan was voted out of power through a no confidence motion, Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa faced a tough time explaining to young and senior-ranking officers that the former Prime Minister was now history in his address to the garrison officers in Rawalpindi. General Bajwa’s speech and the question-and-answer session continued for more than four hours and fifteen minutes. General Bajwa reportedly explained to the officers that the Army stopped supporting Khan after “he stopped listening to us.” General Bajwa questioned the importance of the so-called and alleged “threatening letter” conspiracy and told his officers that no one in this country, in his opinion, was a traitor – “not even Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir.”

However, not surprisingly, the audience tended to support Imran Khan. General Bajwa faced tough questions from officers. They were critical of the way in which the former Prime Minister was ousted. I was informed about this garrison meeting by a retired Army officer. I was, however, reluctant to report on this meeting since I did not receive any confirmation from another source till the writing of this piece – when another retired army officer confirmed that this interaction had indeed taken place in Rawalpindi. “In fact, General Bajwa’s speech and his interaction with Army officers remained the subject of discussion in Whatsapp groups among retired army officers for quite some time,” said this source, who confirmed the speech and the interaction.

This suggests that Imran Khan’s hate-infected political rhetoric has a wide influence in Pakistani society. Or maybe it is the other way around: Khan’s political message is greatly influenced by the anti-politics, anti-democracy and anti-human rights culture that generally prevails among Army officers.

After all, Imran Khan is the first Pakistani ruler in the post-Musharraf period who had made an attempt to cultivate army officers and the institution itself as a constituency. This fact was widely reported in national and international media when the Khan government started appointing serving and retired army officers in important civilian positions in his government. I never had the opportunity to discuss politics with serving army officers, apart from the few opportunities I had about discussing the security environment of the country with senior army officers in the wake of 9/11. But with retired army officers—some of them recently retired—I have discussed Pakistani politics in detail. Clearly these retired army officers were anti-democracy, even anti-politics and went out of the way to demonise the political system and demean the meek attempts in Pakistani society to enforce human rights. They wore masculinity on their faces just like Imran Khan, whose political image is based on his macho posture. Those familiar with the rise of fascist political ideas in Western societies are well aware that exaggerated masculinity and misogyny were the essential ingredients of Fascist ideas as they emerged in Italy and Germany in the wake of the First World War. In fact, I believe that such allegations of hyper-masculinity and misogyny would stick with every male politician in Pakistan, barring a few exceptions.

However, not every politician is special enough to influence the young officers of Pakistan Army and attract their support in highly formal garrison officers’ meetings in Rawalpindi or have the political space available to him treat these officers as a constituency and project their political or rather anti-political views on a national level.

We have been hearing from experts on civil-military relations that the Army jealously guards its internal organisation and discipline from any outside influence. Since his ouster from power, Imran Khan has many times indicated that he not only knew that he enjoyed support from the army officers, he in fact seemingly made attempts to galvanise support amongst this constituency to put pressure from within the organisation. For instance, Khan in one of his speeches, without naming General Bajwa, said that “If someone has committed a mistake he should rectify it” by forcing a parliament election on the government. Someone close to Imran Khan even said that they would not accept the COAS appointment in November if Shehbaz Sharif were to make such an appointment. The trends in PTI supporters’ social media campaign are another indication that the party wants to galvanise the army's rank-and-file to put pressure on the top brass. The flip side of this situation are the several protests and demonstrations by DHAs of different cities in support of Imran Khan, in which retired army officers and their families participated.

Treating the Army organisation as a constituency is a dangerous trend and a bad omen for the political future of Pakistan. Anti-democratic political currents in the army’s rank-and-file are hardly exceptional to the Pakistan Army. This is generally true about every army around the world. Sometimes, political leaders in other countries also make attempts to project anti-democratic views of their army officers on a national level. But Pakistan right now is passing through an exceptional period.

Khan’s two fears could destabilise the system. First, he fears he would be treated just like Nawaz Sharif was treated after 2017. Secondly, if the Shehbaz government consolidates its power, the new PM would exercise the power to appoint the next COAS—who would not be Khan’s favourite -- in November.

In such a situation, this agitation has the potential to politicise the whole environment: even the internal situation of the army would be dragged into politics. Using the army as a constituency in such a situation will not only destabilise the government, it could derail the system. And remember: a military takeover is not the only form of derailment. There are other more sinister forms, like the rise of chaos and anarchy.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.