he arrest of PMLN loyalist Khawaja Asif by the government-controlled NAB has revealed Imran Khan’s frame of mind. He will foil any opposition attempt to wean the Miltablishment away from him. Khawaja Asif, it may be recalled, has been the PMLN’s point man for contacts with the generals for a road map out of the current political crisis. He was one of the leading PMLN proponents of facilitating the extension of the army chief’s tenure even though it went against the grain of Nawaz Sharif’s narrative. Earlier, Shahbaz Sharif was put behind bars by NAB because he was pursuing the same line of action. Indeed, it was Shahbaz Sharif who persuaded the generals to enable Nawaz Sharif to go to London while he negotiated possible regime change with them. Khawaja Asif’s recent arrest was precipitated by a sudden flurry of activity by Mahmud Ali Durrani, a Miltablishment asset, who openly admitted that he had called on Shahbaz Sharif in prison to try to convince him to diffuse the PMLN attack on the generals who are propping up Imran Khan in the face of rising public anger at the abysmal performance of the PTI regime. For much the same reasons, the government is actively pursuing the LNG case against Shahid Khaqan Abbasi: he too is seen as someone who can play the role of a PMLN intermediary between Nawaz Sharif and the generals.
But it isn’t just Imran Khan’s frame of mind that is clear. The generals first started talking to Shahbaz Sharif and Khawaja Asif when the matter of the army chief’s extension was hanging fire. Indeed, the speculation that Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s long march in November 2019 was launched at their behest to pressurize Imran Khan to grant the extension is made credible by Maulana Fazal’s recent admission that he dispersed his followers from Islamabad on the understanding that Imran Khan would be ousted by March 2020. In fact, if Maulana Fazal’s ire is aimed at the generals who blithely went back on their word to him, both Shahbaz Sharif and Khawaja Asif are in a more problematic situation. Not only are they in prison for trying to keep lines of communication open with the generals, they are also responsible for the hard line against the generals taken by Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazal after being “betrayed” by them.
The opposition’s attacks against the generals are being painted by Imran Khan as “anti-army” treachery. Much more significantly, however, such attacks make the generals distinctly uncomfortable for being revealed as arch political manipulators. Indeed, the more the opposition trains it guns on them instead of Imran Khan, the more the Miltablishment is blackened as a party-partisan institution rather than a neutral national one. Inevitably, this builds internal pressure on it to pull back and stop the damage to its “sacred” image. Hence the generals’ attempt to reopen negotiations with the opposition.
So now we have three evident contradictions in play: between the selected PM, Imran Khan, and the popular Opposition; between the hounded Opposition and the targeted generals; and between Imran Khan who wants to reinforce the status quo and the generals who seek a solution to the continuing crisis at hand. Clearly, the opposition means to focus on deepening the first two conflicts in order to agravate the third.
A “strategy” for ousting Imran Khan has now been proposed by Asif Zardari. It says Pakistan Democratic Movement should collect resignations of its MNAs and MPAs and hold them until further notice. Instead the PDM should contest the Senate elections in March (so that the government cannot consolidate its power) even as it keeps the pot boiling on the streets and pressurizing the Generals to ditch Imran Khan. After that, it should weigh the pros and cons of a long march on Islamabad to submit resignations and deepen the crisis. Should the government try to hold by-elections, the PDM should actively thwart them by various means, including jalsas, street protests, strikes, sit-ins and gheraos. Given the level of militancy among JUI and PMLN cadres, this shouldn’t be too difficult even if more arrests are ordered. So long as acute political instability and uncertainty exist, the government will be incapacitated from reviving the economy and alleviating the hardship of the people. This will put the Miltablishment under greater pressure because rising national security budgets in a hostile neighbourhood depend on a growing and vibrant economy.
The urgency of finding a solution to the current impasse is two-fold. First, the PTI government has shown its incapacity to govern even with a modicum of sensibility. Indeed, it has so mismanaged the economy that its continuation has become an ordeal for stressed out Pakistanis. It has made its job even more difficult by witch-hunting the opposition and compelling it to desperate means and ends. Second, it has brought the Miltablishment into unprecedented censure for propping it up unreasonably. There was a time when even the word “establishment” was hesitatingly mentioned in everyday discourse. Now serving generals are being called out by name by old Miltablishment friends, allies and assets. Incredibly enough, the religious parties that were once staunch Miltablishment assets have now trained their guns on it. The brutal language used by the JUI’s Maulana Fazal, Maulana Haideri, Maulana Kifaitullah, etc.; the name shaming by Jamaat-e-Islami Ameer, Siraj ul Haq; the attacks on the generals by the late chief of the Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, Khadim Hussain Rizvi; etc.; all point to an ominous radicalization of the anti-Miltablishment sentiment across parties, regions and ideologies. In the face of this widespread public outrage, the rapidly expanding social media is increasingly speaking truth to power.
This “hybrid” system is an unmitigated disaster. The Miltablishment must make way for the popular sentiment to be accommodated in a purposeful way by better political and economic management in a more democratic and consensual environment.