His foreign policy gaffes led to Pakistan being made a virtual pariah.
One hundred seventy-two is not a daunting target in cricket. But against a Pakistani bowling attack led by Imran Khan at his prime, even this target would be difficult. This was the total the opposition chased in the Pakistan National Assembly when it called for the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan in a no-confidence motion on 9 April. They reached the number of votes with surprising ease—garnering 174 votes with none against—a figure of 174-0 you could say. Imran Khan, for all his earlier bombast, did not attend the Assembly and did not even come in to bowl. His tenure as Prime Minister was cut short when he had still a year and a half to go—run out, well short of the crease.
Imran has become the first Pakistani Prime Minister to be dismissed in a No-Confidence Motion. But then he is not the first to be removed before completing his full term. Of its 29 Prime Ministers, none have completed their full term. 19 of them have been cut short by assassination, dismissal, forced resignation, or simply deposed by the Army. Imran’s departure is just in keeping with Pakistani politics.
But then his fall was imminent, though he tried hard to delay the inevitable. He ducked the bouncer hurled at him by the opposition, when the initial no-confidence-vote on 3 April was rejected by the Deputy Speaker of the House, Qasim Khan Suri, on the hare-brained grounds that it went against a provision of the Constitution demanding loyalty of citizens to the state. He then dissolved the National Assembly and the four Provincial Assemblies and called for fresh elections. It was a brazenly unconstitutional act and his actions thereafter—alleging that the opposition had been bought, citing the ubiquitous “foreign hand”, waving an alleged threat letter to prove his point (even naming the US on national television before trying to cover up his gaffe.) He even called his supporters out on the streets in an action reminiscent of Trump inciting his supporters to march on Capitol Hill.
But these were mere gimmicks which could not delay the inevitable. The five-member bench of Pakistan’s Supreme Court quashed the resolution and ordered that the No-Confidence-Motion be held “not later than 10.30 a.m. on 9 April”—a decision that restored parliamentary processes and sent Imran Khan back to take guard in a match that he hoped would be called off. It took the National Assembly all day, with four adjournments, before the voting was finally called after midnight and the opposition tallied the requisite 172 votes to bring an end to the sordid drama and bringing the curtain down on his government. Imran Khan was not present during the voting. His promise of “fighting till the last ball” did not materialize. He did not attend the Assembly and had even vacated the Prime Ministerial residence before the count began.
Imran’s ignominious departure has not come as a surprise to those who follow Pakistani politics. Ever since his fallout with the Army, most notably over the retention of the ISI chief, Gen Faiz Hameed, whom Gen Bajwa wanted to remove, his political stock had fallen. He himself was proving a liability for the Army with his sheer incompetence. His handling of the country had led to unprecedented economic chaos and internal turmoil. The Pakistani rupee lost 50% of its value in four years and plummeted to 192 per dollar. Inflation reached an all-time high of 12.2% and the annual GDP shrank from $315 billion to $264 billion. Worse still, his foreign policy gaffes led to Pakistan being made a virtual pariah. The relationship with the US has shattered, with Joe Biden not even giving him a tele call. He has alienated traditional friends like Saudi Arabia and UAE, by promoting an alternative Islamic bloc with Turkey and Malaysia. And, in spite of his recent praise for India, he fractured relations with undiplomatic pronouncements and personal attacks on its leaders. In a classic reversal of roles, it was the Army Chief, who spoke of opening a new chapter of peace with India, which led to a cease fire along the LOC. Gen Qamar Bajwa’s vision of “eco-security’ hinged on trade and improved relations with India, but was stymied by Imran who harped on India’s removal of Article 370 in Kashmir instead. Even with China, he was unable to deliver on any of the CPEC projects—in spite of pronouncements. He was simply unable to deliver on any aspect of governance and his promise of “Naya Pakistan” made many long for the achhe din of Purana Pakistan.
With Imran’s departure, the PML(N) leader Shehbaz Sharif—Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother—was unanimously appointed as Prime Minister by the combined opposition. But he takes over a thorny crown. The removal of Imran Khan is one chapter in the story. How far would Shehbaz Sharif be able to continue is another.
For starters, we do not know if the new government will continue for the entire term remaining—till August 23 when the next general elections are due—or would fresh elections be called. Imran Khan would definitely be in favour of early elections. It would enable him to capitalize on the martyr image which he built up for himself by standing up to the US and world pressure, and painting the opposition as opportunists out to destroy the nation for personal gain.
Opposition unity is another story. The diverse groups of Pakistani politics, Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N), Bilawal Bhutto’s PPP, and even the fringe parties have all come together to orchestrate Imran’s ouster. But will they last, or would individual ambitions take sway? Should the combined opposition fray, it could give Imran yet another chance to make a bid for power in the next elections.
A lot would depend on the Army, of course. As the drama of the National Assembly played out, there were fears in Islamabad that 111 Infantry Brigade—the coup Brigade co-located at Rawalpindi—was being mobilized for the Army to take over once again. There were also rumors that Imran was planning to sack the Army Chief. That was only speculation, but the Army is definitely not the “neutral observer” it presents itself to be. Almost all political activity has been orchestrated by it.
It was the Army’s disenchantment with Imran that galvanized the opposition and kick-started the movement to remove him. Shahbaz Sharif is known to have slightly better relations with the Army than his brother Nawaz, and he could be propped up—with Nawaz Sharif’s returning from exile and a likely extension for General Bajwa. But could the Army go one step beyond? Could they use the sordid political drama as an excuse to take over the country again? It is a possible scenario, but seems unlikely. The Army would rather continue with their “hybrid regime”, in which they place one of their “selected” men in the PM’s chair and simply call the shots from the background. That way they remain the centre of power and take all the decisions; but none of the responsibility, or any of the blame if things don’t work out.
How does it pan out for India? In spite of Imran Khan’s latest pronouncements praising India and its systems, we will be glad to see him go. He was more hawkish than any of his predecessors and there was virtually no forward movement in Indo-Pak ties during his tenure. It is unlikely that Shehbaz Sharif will make a complete U-turn. But the Sharif brothers are known to be more dovish in their approach to India, and being a skilled administrator himself, perhaps Shehbaz Sharif could re-start trade and commerce. As a former Chief Minister of Punjab, he knows the benefits that could accrue to his own province from it.
Should he take forward the line of the Army Chief that peace with India is vital for their “eco-security” there could be a reduction of hostility. And then it all boils down to Kashmir. Imran held all talks and trade hostage to his opposition to India revoking Special Status to Kashmir. Sharif may not follow that rigid a stance (though of course, he would make the traditional statements of support to Kashmir etc—else his own political stock would plummet) and decide to move ahead in other fields. But the acid test will be when Kashmir comes up for elections. A successful election will complete Kashmir’s amalgamation with India. Will Pakistan permit it to be conducted without interference, or will they restart their disruptive activities to foment militancy in Kashmir. In spite of the change in government, it will not be too surprising if they choose the latter.
Pakistan’s political turmoil has not ended with this match. Imran Khan is unlikely to lie low, and whether opposition unity lasts, remains to be seen. This turmoil will only heighten Pakistan’s social and economic woes, which are likely to worsen for some time at least. The instability could heighten sectarian violence and religious extremism, which in any case, is rapidly rising in Pakistan as a fall-out from Afghanistan. Pakistan is in for another turbulent political phase. But eventually, how it handles it, who captains it, which team is chosen and the manner in which it would play the game, will all be decided by the all-powerful match referee—the Pakistani Army itself.
Ajay Singh is an award-winning writer and commentator.