A piece authored by Washington Post’s staff columnist Ishaan Tharoor has strongly criticized the mistreatment of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan by the Pakistan establishment. Ishaan Tharoor, who is known for his foreign affairs commentary, contributes to The Washington Post with his Today’s WorldView newsletter and column. Commencing with the familiar observation about Pakistan’s unique dynamic where, “… Most states have armies, but, in Pakistan, the army has a state,” Tharoor underscores how this holds true not only in the historical backdrop of periodic coups orchestrated by Pakistani generals over the decades but also in the extensive range of economic interests held by the military. He points out the commanding influence wielded by the top brass throughout Pakistan’s turbulent pursuit of civilian-led democracy.
Tharoor goes on to elaborate that this establishment’s presence looms large over Imran Khan’s detainment. Subsequently, Khan found himself ensnared in a series of numerous legal cases. In May, following Khan’s initial arrest, supporters of PTI engaged in aggressive acts against multiple military installations, perceiving the dominant institution as the root cause of their leader’s predicament.
The military’s response has been unrelenting. A multitude of PTI supporters has been arrested, with some facing trials in military courts. Numerous PTI politicians, fearing arrest, have relinquished their party affiliations. Others have switched allegiances to different factions, openly condemning Khan’s actions. Sympathetic voices in the media have either fallen silent or been silenced.
Political analyst Arif Rafiq, quoted in the New York Times, characterizes the Pakistani Army’s involvement as another instance of political manipulation. The focus lies on forcing resignations from Khan’s party while bringing new political forces together. Rafiq suggests that the primary objective here is to extricate Khan from the political process, as he no longer remains reliably compliant and has garnered a significant level of popular support that bestows him with political capital independent of the military.
Khan’s distinct political approach and the popularity he enjoys might pose a distinctive challenge to the top brass. Aqil Shah, writing in Foreign Affairs, points out that although Khan was previously a proxy for the army, he has now adopted a defiant stance, attempting to undermine the military’s institutional unity by sowing discord within its ranks against the army chief. Shah also indicates the army’s concern that Khan’s primary support base resides within Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and the hub of army recruitment, traditionally leaning in favor of the military.
The former prime minister, Imran Khan, has displayed unyielding defiance for months. Mere days before his recent arrest, he publicly criticized the military on the BBC program HARDtalk, stating that the country has fallen under the control of fascists who dread elections. He asserted that his suffering is due to the realization that his party would emerge victorious in elections. His accusations extended to the dismantling of democracy by these forces.
However, Khan’s critics argue that his claims hold little weight, drawing parallels to the fate of other prominent politicians like former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who faced legal challenges and political turmoil due to clashes with the military establishment. A Sunday editorial in Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, suggests that though military-backed legal battles might not obliterate Khan’s political relevance, they could undoubtedly inflict damage upon Pakistan’s fragile democracy.
The editorial acknowledges that the fate of a politician ultimately lies in the hands of their constituents. This fundamental relationship cannot be altered by external interventions. The experiment was tested with past politicians and yielded unfavorable results. By repeating similar tactics, the state may inadvertently weaken an already strained social contract.
Contrasting opinions also exist. Some analysts attribute a share of responsibility to Khan for an ineffective tenure in office, coupled with the incendiary rhetoric that preceded and followed it. Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a Pakistani commentator, argues that after his removal in 2022, Khan failed to regroup and reassess his strategies. Instead, his regime’s gradual downfall accelerated after his ousting, ultimately leading to the downfall of his political career and party, all at the hands of the military, as noted in an interview with The Hindu, an Indian newspaper.