After witnessing an unprecedented press conference by the director general of ISI, Pakistan’s ongoing political crisis has reverted to the familiar — assassination attempt on a popular political leader. While leading the “long march” of his supporters to Islamabad, former Prime Minister Imran Khan got shot in the leg on November 3 in Wazirabad, Punjab — a province ruled by his party. He is undergoing treatment in a Lahore hospital and his condition is reportedly stable.
The incident, which was quickly condemned by the top leaders of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and the Inter-Services Public Relations, triggered protests by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters across Pakistan, including outside the residence of the Peshawar Corps commander. The federal government has asked the Punjab government to constitute a special investigation team to probe the assassination attempt and promised the necessary help. The Pakistani media has put out the video of a suspect under detention, in which he claims he shot at Khan for “misleading” the people. However, other reports mention that at least one more pistol-wielding person was at the spot.
Pakistan’s past record suggests that the truth may never be known. No convincing answer has been given till today regarding the culprits behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, also a very popular leader, in 2007. Going forward, we are likely to hear two narratives: The PTI blaming the army and the government and Imran Khan’s opponents blaming the polarisation caused by him since his ouster from power or alleging that he organised a false flag operation to add to his popularity, which this incident will certainly end up doing.
Given the current mood in Pakistan, the PTI’s narrative is likely to have more takers. Khan has blamed Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan and the head of the Counter-Intelligence wing of the ISI, Major General Faisal Naseer and called for their immediate removal from office. However, it is hard to see the logic of the powers-that-be in Pakistan making a clumsy attempt on Khan’s life, knowing full well that it would boost his popularity. However, these are desperate times for the army leadership. Their attempts to tame him have failed so far and his anti-army, anti-US narrative, calling for an end to the corruption of the old political players and an autonomous Pakistan acting in its own interest, continues to gain ground. The DG ISI descending from his high pedestal to address a press conference was a measure of this desperation. Moreover, botched assassination attempts by the army are not unknown. The attempt in 2014 on the life of popular TV anchor, Hamid Mir, for which he accused the then DG ISI, is an example.
It is critical for Imran Khan to sustain the political momentum and he is using this incident to up the ante. The PTI has announced nationwide protests after Friday prayers on November 4, which would continue till his demands are met. His long march to Islamabad in May this year had fizzled out as he was unable to mobilise enough numbers. Since then his popularity has grown and the PTI has gained office in Punjab, thereby making it easier for it to mobilise crowds. However, even as Khan has mounted pressure on his opponents, he is also reportedly in back-channel contacts with the army leadership. Therefore, a last-minute compromise, which brings forward the election due in the normal course in the last quarter of 2023, should not be ruled out.
Even though the denouement of the ongoing political crisis remains uncertain, Pakistan is likely to see greater turmoil in the coming days. What is also certain is this may not be the last such crisis for Pakistan. It will continue coming back to the brink periodically until it resolves its dysfunction caused, inter alia, by the civil-military imbalance.
Yet another political protégé — Imran Khan — turning against it has added to the challenge of the Pakistan army in maintaining its prime position in national affairs. An army tank displayed in Peshawar being vandalised by protestors after the attack on Khan is a powerful image of this challenge. However, it may be hasty to conclude that we are seeing a democratic revolution unfold in Pakistan.
To begin with, while opposing the army leadership, Imran Khan has also been beseeching them to give him an early election. That he sees the centrality of the army in Pakistan’s political system continuing is also clear from his strong opposition to the Shehbaz Sharif government appointing the next army chief upon completion of General Bajwa’s extended tenure on November 28. Much has also been said about the sympathy for Khan in the army rank and file. However, they all have a deep interest in the survival of the army citadel that ensures their perks and privileges and would stand together if it is threatened by a civilian leader. Moreover, the army as an institution has ridden out the popularity waves of other political leaders in the past.
The current situation is primarily a problem for General Bajwa, who carries the burden of six years of incumbency and active political engineering that has triggered the PTI attack on his reputation. He has repeatedly said he would doff his uniform on November 28, but doubts persist about his intentions. He would be keen to see, at the very least, the appointment of a successor sympathetic to him. Therefore, more than being about the future of political actors, the current tussle is about who becomes the Chief of Army Staff on November 29.
The periodic turmoil in Pakistan is a reminder of the complex challenge that India faces. The Pakistani state has been troublesome for us, but a meltdown in Pakistan would be no less so. We have little leverage over Pakistan’s internal developments, but there is a need to adopt a more nuanced policy, keeping in mind the sizeable constituency in Pakistan that questions the entrenched interests responsible for Pakistan’s dysfunction, notably the stranglehold of the army that continues to place its institutional interests above those of the Pakistani people.
The writer is a former diplomat and author of India’s Pakistan Conundrum Managing a Complex Relationship