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Has Imran Khan bitten off more than he can chew?

By Ajai Shukla
August 19, 2014 10:19 IST
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Both Messrs Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri claim to march independently, but most of Pakistan believes they are marching to the Army's tune, says Ajai Shukla

On the Pakistani street, there is again talk of a military coup.

Threatened with a massive civil agitation against rigged elections last year, last week a needlessly panicked Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif invoked Article 245 of the Constitution to draft the Army to quell the protests.

With thousands of political activists (their numbers varying wildly depending upon whom one asks) camping in Islamabad and demanding the prime minister's ouster, the Lion of Punjab let out a pitiful mewl and sent his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, to Rawalpindi to supplicate before the Army chief, General Raheel Sharif.

In this charade it is clear who is the sheriff -- as always in Pakistan, the Army will have the final word on how this political confrontation is resolved.

Sensibly, the Army refrained from stepping in overtly.

When its principal opponent -- unquestionably Nawaz Sharif -- is discrediting himself so comprehensively, why would the generals turn the spotlight on themselves?

Given the blood lust in the United States Congress against Pakistan, a coup in Islamabad would inevitably trigger painful sanctions.

Furthermore, with military operations in North Waziristan proceeding less than gloriously, it is convenient to have some politicians at hand to blame for anything that goes wrong.

The Army has chosen to weaken Nawaz Sharif by simply adjudicating from the sidelines in a reminder of who is boss.

It is a measure of the prime minister's plummeting stock that, a year after winning the May 2013 elections, a few thousand protestors and a call to revolution has visibly shaken his government.

Remember, the challenge to Nawaz Sharif is not even from the largest opposition party -- the Pakistan People's Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) -- but from the political gadfly Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which launched an "Azadi march" from Lahore to Islamabad.

Sharing Islamabad's streets with the PTI are supporters of Canada-based cleric, Tahirul Qadri, whose conservative Pakistan Awami Tehreek has launched a parallel "Inquilab march".

Unlike Khan, who is a status quo-ist politician, Qadri seeks to fundamentally overturn Pakistan's political order, giving power to the masses rather than continue the domination by a powerful and wealthy elite.

Both Messrs Khan and Qadri claim to march independently, but most of Pakistan believes they are marching to the Army's tune.

The Army and Nawaz Sharif are old adversaries, even though the prime minister owes his political career to former dictator, general Zia-ul-Haq, who launched the Pakistan Muslim League in the early 1980s as a counterweight to the Bhuttos.

In 1993, three years after Nawaz Sharif first became prime minister, the generals forced him to step down after he clashed with the Army's front man, former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

Nawaz Sharif's second tenure as prime minister was even stormier, with his bid to repair relations with India badly bruised by the Kargil conflict of 1999 -- which he insists the Army did not take his clearance for.

That confrontation with his Army culminated in October 1999 with general Pervez Musharraf's coup that consigned him to seven years of exile in Saudi Arabia.

When Musharraf fell and Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan in 2008, relations with the Army remained strained. Nawaz Sharif even supported his greatest political rival, refusing to take advantage when the Army undermined then president Asif Ali Zardari. That favour is being repaid today with the PPPP staying aloof from the ongoing turmoil.

In June 2013, a month after Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister for the third time, he put Mr Musharraf on trial for treason, for suspending the Constitution and imposing emergency in November 2007 at the height of his confrontation with the judiciary.

When the Army wanted to launch an offensive into North Waziristan against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif insisted on first pursuing political reconciliation through an eventually fruitless peace dialogue.

Nawaz Sharif even supported Jang, after the media conglomerate sensationally blamed the military intelligence agency for shooting prominent anchor, Hamid Mir.

Messrs Khan and Qadri have both calculated that this long-running confrontation with the Army has left Nawaz Sharif vulnerable and exposed.

Bellowing through a microphone on Sunday, Khan gave the prime minister a two-day ultimatum to resign, threatening a "civil disobedience movement" in which Pakistanis would stop paying taxes (hardly earth-shaking, given that less than two per cent of the populace pays income tax) and utility bills (electricity is seldom supplied for more than a few hours daily).

To justify the demand for a majority government to resign just a year after receiving a thumping mandate, Khan alleges that the polls were rigged. He does not explain how his own party's government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is legitimate, having won its mandate in the same elections that he now discredits.

There is a growing sense that Khan has bitten off more than he can chew. Given the turmoil in Pakistan, it was never realistic to assume that the military would take charge when the situation deteriorated. Nor is this the Pakistan of old; a hyperactive media and a powerful judiciary would today be impediments to any coup attempt.

Having whipped up a political frenzy amongst his supporters who marched to Islamabad, Khan has nothing in hand to declare victory -- only the prospect of "civil disobedience".

Pakistani press reports suggest that the government could offer a face-saver by constituting two government committees to hold separate talks with Messrs Khan and Qadri. After all the thunder and rhetoric, this can only be perceived as an anti-climax.

While Qadri can wing his way back to Canada, Khan appears to have seriously damaged his credibility as a political leader.
The prime minister, too, ends up diminished, beholden to the Army for having done absolutely nothing.

Image: Imran Khan gestures to his supporters during the Freedom March in Islamabad August 18, 2014.
Photograph: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

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