These were not mammoth crowds, but small groups of zealous young men (and a few women) playing out a carefully calibrated strategy to demonstrate that Imran Khan and his party were no longer afraid of the military's might. These scenes, amplified by the viral nature of social media platforms, hit global headlines where questions about the Pakistani military are frequently raised. Unfortunately, the Indian media has had a field day since May 9, and these visuals for the Indian commentariat were a godsent opportunity to declare how Pakistan's army was going to be defeated at the hands of Imran Khan and his 'cult following.'
Pakistan's friends must also be worried. The Saudis have a defense pact with Pakistan, whereby they rely on Pakistan's military for the defense of the Kingdom in case it is threatened. The Chinese, whose primary engagement in Pakistan is with the military, must have wondered as to how their "good ol' boys" might be losing control. And of course, Uncle Sam and the Western bloc must have been aghast, seeing their longtime partner entity under serious domestic political threat. But the international image, howsoever important it is given Pakistan's bankrupt economy, is perhaps secondary to the domestic chaos.
As the rioting and violence on May 9 unfolded, misplaced rumours of the Army Chief being fired by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) remained abound on social media. Accounts that are part of the PTI information ecosystem were echoing a single point: Imran's arrest, and efforts to eliminate him politically as well as physically, are the doing of the incumbent Army Chief.
Lo and behold, after receiving a red carpet treatment at the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Imran Khan confirmed all of the above. While speaking to foreign journalists, victorious as the face of a new establishment, he blamed General Asim Munir. Khan also extended the olive branch that he would be willing to work with the Army Chief.
Despite this pragmatic assurance, the damage was already done.
A brutal crackdown ensued. PTI activists, leaders, and media personnel sympathetic to the party, were arrested one after the other, with unsavory scenes of women being dragged and police highhandedness in different parts of the country. At the time of writing these lines, a good number of PTI's second-tier leadership is in detention, and the Supreme Court of Pakistan is due to take notice of the contempt of its order that directed holding of elections in the Punjab province on May 14. To counter the Supreme Court's likely and predictable verdict, parties in the ruling coalition are organizing mass protests outside the Supreme Court building.
While it was clear since last April that the military leadership had decided to dump their coveted 'project Imran', they miscalculated the extent of support that Imran Khan enjoys within the institution itself.
The political class has chosen two institutions of the state that, in their respective worldviews, are biased against them. The PTI has already targeted military installations, and now the PDM will exert pressure on the Supreme Court Chief Justice and his 'like-minded' brother judges. The net result is insane polarization, with the potential to actually undo the Pakistani state as we know it.
While it was clear since last April that the military leadership had decided to dump their coveted 'project Imran', they miscalculated the extent of support that Imran Khan enjoys within the institution itself. Supposedly the rank and file of the army, often cited in public discourses, is 'deeply divided' along political lines; between those who favour Imran Khan and those who do not. As we know from the questionable conduct of the former corps commander Lahore, this support extends to the generals as well.
Unverified audio leaks in circulation suggest that Imran Khan is viewed by relatives of the powerful as a savior and the right choice for the country. This is precisely what the military's faux-strategists had been planning since 2011. In addition, the control of mainstream media and the vulgarization of social media spaces, with the express involvement of the miltablishment, is paying dividends. In part, Imran Khan's supreme confidence is directly linked to insiders, sympathizers, enablers, courtesy of whom he has shown remarkable grit in challenging the Generals.
Similarly, Imran Khan has been successful in polarizing the judiciary wherein many judges think that Khan is righteous and needs to be protected from establishment's wrath. This is why Imran Khan's arrest by the Rangers was promptly declared illegal by the Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice.
The truth of the matter is that the Army as a branch of the government, standing behind the ruling coalition, is how things should be. But given Pakistan's history, Imran Khan and his supporters find it unacceptable, because the leaders of the ruling parties are ‘corrupt,’ while Imran Khan is not. Yet, the Chief Justice and his 'like-minded' judges giving special treatment to a popular leader of the opposition is somewhat extraordinary, given how this institution has treated Prime Ministers in the past and, most recently, the Chief Justice himself, who was a member of benches that eliminated another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, from mainstream politics. Regardless of the merits, the public impression is that of partisanship.
If they allow Imran to return, they will have to brace for a Pakistani Erdoğan who would reset the contours of the military's hegemony. If they stop him through means fair or foul, they risk explosion of fissures within, leading to unmanageable crises.
Intra-elite contestation has reached its climax now. The Parliament has already discarded the Supreme Court's orders setting wrong precedents. The politicians in power have targeted the judges, and vice versa. The Supreme Court is also at loggerheads with the military, and the historic alliance between the two stands broken. This chaos certainly favors Imran Khan and his invincible image as the challenger of the old establishment. Sections of the junta, a few judges, the middle classes, and segments of the media are keen to get Imran Khan back into power with a sweeping majority.
The generals find themselves in an existential dilemma. If they allow Imran to return, they will have to brace for a Pakistani Erdoğan who would reset the contours of the military's hegemony. If they stop him through means fair or foul, they risk explosion of fissures within, leading to unmanageable crises. Both scenarios put Pakistan's very existence in extreme peril.
Mass arrests, and media and internet blockades, have already created an authoritarian environment which is both unconstitutional and untenable in the current circumstances. The recent announcement to try the perpetrators under the Army Act is another red flag. It is time for the military and the government in power to undertake a reassessment and open a channel of dialogue with Imran Khan, unless they too want the country to burn.