Tuesday, 21 March, 2023
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Imran Khan thinks he has hit a sixer, but ball is still in air – with court, army watching

India can only be thankful that for once, Delhi has not been blamed by the mercurial Imran Khan and his ministers so far.

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In a last-minute, incredibly convoluted move, Imran Khan not only managed to stave off the humiliation of a ‘no-confidence motion’ against him, but also laid the path open to possible re-election in Pakistan. That could be a sixer of no mean proportions, except that the ball is still in the air, and could be caught at any time forcing him to leave the field in ignominy. Either way, the Pakistani political landscape resembles a war zone, with each side geared up to do its worst.

And amid all this, just to thicken the analytical soup further, that power of powers, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa gave a speech that diverged completely from the Imran Khan government on Ukraine policy, in a possible bid to keep a furious US State Department from actually demanding Khan’s head.

The promised ‘surprise’

Imran Khan’s movements have so far been masterly, unconstitutional and totally without the basic political morality that he so often accuses his opponents of lacking. He used the podium at a massive rally to present a ‘fighting front’ to the public, listing out his government’s successes (which are few) and the corruption cases against his opponents (which are many). In another one of his now familiar ‘U turns,’ he directed his party men to attend the vital National Assembly session, after virtually threatening them with dire consequences if they did. Far worse, he called on his supporters to protest before the vote, virtually asking for violence.

Central to his machinations, was the bizarre charge against US diplomats, apparently arising from a meeting between the then-Ambassador to US, Asad Majeed Khan, and the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, where the latter is alleged to have used strong language against Khan’s visit to Russia on the very day that it invaded Ukraine. That is the first story, as said during his address, where he waved the alleged ‘secret letter’ or cable. Consider that Khan went to Russia on 23 February. Presumably any displeasure would have been expressed almost immediately via an urgent diplomatic cable a few days later. Why Khan waited so long to publicise ‘the threat’ is a mystery. There are additional international ramifications to this, since he also referred to a ‘man in London‘ who was acting as puppet master.

That last reference seems to have been aside, as the National Security Council only issued a demarche to the US, accusing it of interference in internal affairs of Pakistan. Then came the charge of assassination threats on his life. The intention to force an election was apparent in a last-minute directive to all his party men to resign from the National Assembly. One would have thought it couldn’t get any worse, but it did.

As the National Assembly convened, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry invoked Article 5(1) to say that its clauses that call for loyalty to the state as the basic duty of every citizen were violated by the alleged ‘foreign conspiracy’ to oust the government. Without waiting to draw breath, the Deputy Speaker impassively rejected the no-confidence motion on that basis. Then came the next shocker. Khan had ‘advised’ the President to dissolve the National Assembly, and call for elections.  True to his word that everyone would get a ‘surprise’, the media and opposition were stunned.

Also read: Imran Khan outsmarts Pakistan’s opposition for now, tells country to ‘prepare for elections’

The constitutional angle

Even a child of five would realise that the whole thing was a highly staged manoeuvre. Fawad Choudhry’s charge of a foreign-inspired attempt at ‘regime change’ could certainly have been considered by the speaker, but surely acted upon only after due investigation. Moreover, the Deputy Speaker chose to ignore that a no-confidence motion had been tabled already, in which case, any move to dissolve the Assembly would logically be seen as mala fide. Pakistani experts are seeing this move as totally unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the Opposition is citing Article 4 that refers to any attempt to subvert the constitution as ‘high treason’, which seems logically far more feasible, given the train of events, and assuming a neutral court. In that case, the Deputy Speaker also goes in the dock as an accessory.

Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial has said that “all actions” taken by the president and the prime minister regarding the dissolution of the National Assembly will be considered by the court. In sum, the no-confidence motion is beyond the court’s purview. The dissolution is not.

Further on, the court or any investigation will want to examine the ‘letter’ that is crucial to the whole case. In his speech later, Imran Khan even referred to the unfortunate US official by name. There’s no getting away from this. The ‘foreign conspiracy’ will have to be proved. Second, the allegations of a threat to his life will have to be proved, even as the prime minister continues his duties in office as per the constitution. That means at least for the next 60 days till fresh elections are held, Khan has the levers in his hands for any ‘investigation’. After that, there are the elections to be fought, and if he wins, he gets to brand everyone else a traitor. And here’s the issue. He may well win. All the world loves a fighter, and that’s what he’s proved himself to be.

In Pakistan especially, as in much of South Asia, a smart move is appreciated more than a moral stand. Remember also that the last time a no-confidence motion was proposed, Khan proceeded to file cases against all opposition leaders including Shahbaz Sharif and his son. This is not a man who – despite his Oxford education – has any qualms about what tools he chooses.

Also read: ‘Imran Khan will save Pakistan,’ shout his supporters outside parliament as President dissolves National Assembly

The ambassador in question

Then there are the extremely curious details of the letter as alleged in Parliament. The new argument is that, “On March 7, our official ambassador was invited to a meeting attended by the representatives of other countries, with the threats following that Pakistan would be punished if the NCM [no-confidence motion] did not go through. The motion was filed the next day.” This extremely serious charge was therefore made under the new Ambassador to US Masood Khan, who was finally accepted, after nearly three months of wait, to the position. That wait may have been due to Republican Congressman Scott Perry writing to US President Joe Biden, calling Khan a ‘jihadist’ and ‘a bona fide terrorist sympathiser’.

After serving in various ambassadorial posts, Khan was elected (i.e. selected) as President of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2016. During his tenure he declared Burhan Wani a ‘hero’ who had attained ‘martyrdom’, called Indian PM Narendra Modi a ‘Nazi’, and in 2021, on the fifth anniversary of Wani’s killing, put out a special message hailing the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant. One can only imagine the fury in the State Department.

Also read: Pakistan Army denies role in rejection of no-confidence motion, dissolution of National Assembly

The Pakistan Army’s position

The final arbiter, after being extremely quiet for months, finally responded with a call for ‘fresh elections’ as an ‘agreeable solution’, sparing the government further embarrassment. Since that advice has not been taken, General Bajwa used the Islamabad Security Dialogue to recall a close friendship with Ukraine, and the earlier cool relationship with Russia, but also called out for an immediate end to the Russian invasion. In other words, he chose to take a position that would please the State Department at a time when his (presumed) boss was doing just the reverse. It is also noteworthy, that for once, the various conspiracy theories being discussed by all, none involve India. In short, it doesn’t seem that the army has a dog in this fight. However, if violence spills out on the streets, and Imran Khan chooses to sit back and do nothing, to use this for his political gains, the army may well be compelled to act in terms of ensuring that the paramilitary forces are deployed adequately. That is likely to be the sum and substance of an ‘army intervention’.

This, because Pakistan is highly dependent on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for simply sustaining the economy; the IMF will not provide largesse to military governments.

For India, it can only be thankful that for once, Delhi has not been blamed – so far – by the mercurial Imran Khan and his buddies. Any back channel operating with the political forces will certainly be stalled for the time being. But there is usually a line open to the army or its allied agencies. Given that the politicos have been of little consequence in deciding bilateral relationships, Delhi needs to ponder on the repeatedly positive signals being sent from Rawalpindi, in terms of its own interests. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s political chaos need not concern us, nor the inevitable fury of the US embassy. Fortunately, the era of a zero-sum game has long passed, and Pakistan’s slippery slide on the international stage is entirely its own business.

Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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