Pakistan is on the edge. This is nothing new for a country that has been lacking a stable system of governance. Notionally, it has the trappings of a democracy, but it has always accorded the Rawalpindi GHQ superior status which elected governments ignore at their peril. If the civilian rulers develop a spine and step out of line, the permanent establishment, the Army, is quick to discipline them. Imran Khan, the playboy cricketer-turned-politician learnt the lesson at his cost when he found himself ejected from power in April following a no-confidence motion which saw all shades of opinion on the Opposition benches come together. Clearly, the Army had arranged the unity of hitherto viscerally hostile elements. But unlike other leaders before him who had benefited from the embrace of the permanent establishment and then incurred its wrath, like Nawaz Sharif, Mr Khan was unwilling to fade away into the sunset. He sought to confront the Army head-on, blaming it for his removal and moving to force an election here and now, though in the normal course it is not due till later next year.
The attempt on Mr Khan’s life last week, which he miraculously survived, would not have come as a surprise to anyone in Pakistan. Political killings have disfigured the nascent country’s history since its birth in 1947, beginning with the assassination of its first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, in 1951. Since then, several other notable political figures have paid the ultimate price for their politics. The last Prime Minister to fall to the assassin’s bullet was Benazir Bhutto. She was on the campaign trail in 2007 when she was gunned down in front of hordes of enthusiastic supporters. Even at that time the hand of the Army was widely suspected, but no one in the establishment was punished.
The failed attempt on Mr Khan last week was eerily similar. Travelling in a motorcade surrounded by frenzied supporters, he was on his way to Lahore as part of the weeklong march to force a fresh election when in Wazirabad a gunman shot him with a heavy-duty firearm. Mr Khan took a bullet in his leg while one of his supporters was killed. The lone gunman, though there is speculation about an accomplice, was captured alive and handed over to the police. Later the assailant was shown on television claiming that he had sought to kill Mr Khan because he was misleading people and his entourage was playing loud music while the call to prayer was being sounded by a nearby mosque. Curiously, the confession of the assailant on television led many to believe that it was done to counter Mr Khan’s charge that there was a wider conspiracy behind the bid. Unlike on previous occasions, there are cracks in the once-united GHQ, with some members developing a soft corner for Mr Khan though a majority remains hostile to his ambition to neutralize the Army’s influence in the political sphere.
For someone who started as a plaything in the hands of the generals to want to confine their role strictly to national defence and security is laudable. But Mr Khan may be the wrong leader to attempt to do so. For, at one go, he has created many enemies for himself. For as long as one can recall, Pakistan has lived by the Army, America and Allah. Now, Mr Khan has antagonized the Army and America, blaming the latter, without much evidence, for his ouster. Having embraced religious extremism to get ahead in politics, Mr Khan’s divorce from the Army and America presages more trouble ahead for him and the country.
At one level, Imran Khan should count himself fortunate for not being in power when inflation is ruling at 90%, the currency is in free fall, and the treasury can barely cope with the import bill for essentials. Much of the mess is certainly of his creation. But he has cleverly channelled the popular anger against the successor regime the Army put in place. Pakistan is in for more troubled times. And, by the way, did anyone notice that no one is blaming India for the chaos and violence?