Sunday, May 14, 2023

A fight to the end

A spectre is haunting Pakistan — the spectre of a possibly violent final round in the ongoing tussle for power

An activist of PTI party listens to former prime minister Imran Khans speech on a phone, in Zaman Park in Lahore on May 13, 2023. — AFP
An activist of PTI party listens to former prime minister Imran Khan's speech on a phone, in Zaman Park in Lahore on May 13, 2023. — AFP

A spectre is haunting Pakistan — the spectre of a possibly violent final round in the ongoing tussle for power. As the battle lines are being drawn, Imran Khan is able to flex his muscles not so much on the strength of his following, which is large, but with the generosity of the higher judiciary.

At the same time, however, the consequences of what happened on Tuesday, when the former prime minister was arrested from the premises of the Islamabad High Court by the Rangers in a pronounced show of force, are sure to gradually unfold. What his arrest triggered, including attacks by PTI activists on army's properties, has affected the entire country. Normal life was disrupted in almost all major cities as riots broke out and roads were blocked.

Eight persons were killed until Wednesday evening and the situation became so critical that the army was called out in Punjab, Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. 

On its part, the government added considerably to the nation-wide disruption by suspending internet services that affected millions of citizens in many different ways. It took three long days for the government to restore the internet.

But by far the most significant outcome of the rampage caused by PTI protesters was the statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) on Wednesday. The way the military's stance towards the aftermath of Khan's arrest was drafted and designed left one with no doubt about where the present crisis is heading.

In addition to the standard warning that no one would be allowed to take the law into their hands, the military response asserted that "this group, wearing a political cloak" had done, in its lust for power, what the enemies of the country could not do in 75 years. 

The statement was headlined: "May 9 will be remembered as a dark chapter". It noted that immediately after Khan's arrest, the military's properties and installations were attacked and slogans against the army were raised in an organised manner.

This would be taken as an indictment of Khan and his party. Interestingly, the higher judiciary that is formally entitled to pass judgment in these matters seemed to have more sympathy for what Imran Khan was accused of by the authorities. 

Proceedings in the Supreme Court on Thursday and in the Islamabad High Court on Friday tilted entirely in Khan's favour. There was a great sense of drama in what happened on both days. The nation held its breath while watching it. And in a polarised country, emotions are running high.

There had already been a lot of comment on Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial of the Supreme Court's alleged inclination towards the PTI. On Thursday, to his detractors his observations seemed to confirm this assumption. 

The PTI leader was produced on the apex court's direction and when he came to the rostrum, he was greeted by the chief justice who said: "Good to see you". Then, Khan was accorded an extraordinary relief as the three-member bench termed his arrest on the premises of the IHC as "invalid and unlawful".

Naturally, there was a strong reaction from the high officials of the government who saw it as the higher judiciary's "dual standard". It was asserted that such relief had not been extended to other prominent politicians. Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said that it would be better for the chief justice to "leave his office and join the PTI".

On Friday, Khan received a blanket relief from the IHC as the court barred authorities from arresting him in any of the cases registered against him until Monday — tomorrow. 

The day's proceedings were long and the PTI leader was given protective bail in a number of cases. Before that blanket relief, the police were waiting to arrest Khan outside the premises of the court. Eventually, he was able to leave late in the evening, after staying in the court for 11 hours.

While much of the focus has remained on Khan's appearances in the court, a lot has happened on other fronts. This is an exceptional time for Pakistan. 

There have been emergent meetings of the federal cabinet and of the leaders of the ruling coalition, who seemed unable to take any strong steps to assert their authority. 

On Friday evening, Rehman, who heads the ruling alliance, announced the plan for a protest rally in front of the Supreme Court on Monday but this may not be a sufficient response to the widespread disorder that the PTI was able to generate.

With the visible presence of the army on the streets and large-scale arrests of PTI leaders and protesters, the tempo of political discord is bound to rise. 

If there is no movement towards some kind of reconciliation, a deadly confrontation between Khan and the establishment (or one individual) is in the offing. Khan, speaking to BBC on Friday said that "this is a fight to the end" for him.

But what is he fighting for? Yes, he constantly makes statements for and against this or that. Yet, with all his U-turns, there is no clarity about his ideas and the values he believes in. 

There is no doubt that he has a large and committed following that constitutes a cult and a fan club. We have witnessed this week what his following, nurtured on bullyism, is like. It does not matter what Imran Khan says or does. Facts about, say, the Al Qadir Trust case or the sale of the Toshakhana gifts in the market have no relevance to the idolisation of the leader.

In some ways, the emergence of a leader like Imran Khan is the manifestation of a society that is emotionally and intellectually unstable and yearns for a saviour. Values and ideas are not in play in this game. And a charismatic leader can often become a national disaster, especially when he comes into power.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this piece are the writer's own and don't necessarily reflect's editorial policy.

Originally published in The News