Pakistan: The Theatre of the Absurd

During the past few weeks, the political landscape of Pakistan has been dominated by a high decibel spat between Imran Khan, the ousted Prime Minister, and Shehbaz Sharif, the newly-appointed premier, and between their supporters.

Lending a touch of the macabre, Imran had spoken of threats to his life weeks before he was thrown out of office. He thought he sounded as convincing about it as when he produced a ‘letter’ purportedly containing details of the US ‘conspiracy’ to oust him for being ‘unacceptable’ to Washington.

For Imran, it is a do-or-die situation now. He was ‘selected’ as Prime Minister by the powerful army. But he became delusional by thinking that he could veto the army, and foolishly annoyed the Generals by interfering in matters in their domain — like trying to scuttle the transfer of ISI chief, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, he had favoured, but the Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa did not.

The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is the eyes and ears of the army, particularly in respect of terrorism targeted against India, and enjoys veto on Delhi and Kabul-centric foreign policy matters.

Under the scheme of things in Pakistan, the Army boss selects the ISI chief, and the Prime Minister of the day simply approves the selection. But Imran did the unthinkable.

First, he delayed the appointment of Hameed’s successor chosen by Bajwa. Then he insisted on interviewing the new incumbent, Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum. He dragged his feet for 20-long days only to fall in line without much ado. This public spat virtually sealed Imran’s fate.

The Pakistan army brass is also unhappy at the way Imran damaged relations with Washington, which, along with Saudi Arabia, guides the destiny of the land of the ‘pure’, as Pakistanis love to describe their homeland carved out of British India in 1947.

It is not going to be easy to repair that damage, more so as Imran remains unrelenting in his attacks on the US, with an eye on the forthcoming battle of the ballot.

There has been, of course, no physical wrestling match between Imran and Shehbaz, but their supporters have not disappointed. During an Iftar held at a five-star hotel in Islamabad, members of Imran’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and Shehbaz’s supporters (from his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and other parties in the ruling alliance) came to blows.

Lawmakers, who had deserted Imran at the time of the voting on the no-confidence motion in the National Assembly, are now receiving threats of physical violence.

Days before the fateful no-trust vote, Imran had warned his rivals that he would be more ‘dangerous’ if voted out of office.

Till almost the very last minute, he was thundering that he would not quit come what may. He still refuses to ‘recognise’ the new dispensation, and continues to dub his rivals as ‘thieves’ and ‘looters’.

Imran’s threats cannot be dismissed as ’empty words’ given his close links with Islamists, and his public display of religiosity. Well, thus far, he has contended himself by hurling abuses and by sounding menacing. It is because of his focus on pump-priming a narrative of victimhood built around conspiracy theories.

The army, non-PTI parties as well as the US administration have pooh-poohed the conspiracy theory, but the former cricketer-turned-politician thinks that his narrative will see him back in power.

Thanks to the Islamists, anti-Americanism is ingrained in the Pakistani psyche. It has become virulent after the Taliban show in neighbouring Afghanistan. The belief that the US has embraced India at their expense has hurt the Pakistanis the most.

Imran is vigorously exploiting this natural fault-line of his country. Reports suggest that he has been drawing large support from ordinary people, and his rallies are well attended. So much so that he is not going to slow down the tempo he has built up in his support by hawking the victim card.

His aggressive pitch has already created an impact. Shehbaz Sharif has begun to make frantic efforts to show himself as a sharper hawk than Imran vis-a-vis India, and as more trenchant in the criticism of the Kashmir policy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi than Imran was.

He camouflages his desire for peaceful relations with India with a demand for resolving the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir.

How long the Shehbaz regime will last is difficult to crystal gaze. The pulls and pressures of allies in public display as he stitched together a Cabinet are a pointer to the tough times ahead for his government.

Much would depend on how his two main props — Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Fazal-ur-Rehman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) — manage to steer the Shehbaz ship.

Shehbaz Sharif and indeed his entire family face an Achilles Heel in the form of cases of alleged corruption and money laundering. These charges may be a result of ‘political vendetta’, but have the potential to influence public opinion.

His elder brother Nawaz Sharif is cooling his heels in London after the courts allowed him to leave the country (for four months) for medical treatment.

Nawaz is set to end his exile, now that his brother is in-charge of the country. But that may also make the political scene more lively with Imran becoming more combative in order to fend off attacks from the Sharif brothers, with Pakistan ending up as the theatre of the absurd.




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