A Snapshot Of The Quagmire That Is Pakistan

Book Excerpts

May 26, 2024, 12:53 PM | Updated 12:53 PM IST

Book cover: Fallout
Book cover: Fallout

Fallout: Power, Intrigue and Political Upheaval in Pakistan. Salman Masood. Penguin. Pages 256. Rs 476.

The danger of civil unrest taking an even more dangerous violent turn

May 2023

Imran Khan has not demonstrated any signs of capitulating. In his speech soon after he was released from custody after the Supreme Court granted him bail, Khan increased his rhetorical intensity. He had an impassioned and irate tone; he was his usual confrontational self. He made fun of a general heading the military’s media wing for being too young to understand Khan’s importance to the nation’s reputation and standing in the world.

Khan reprimanded and referred to a different general, who oversees the national accountability bureau, and accused him of attempting to link him and his wife to the Al-Qadir Trust legal case (Khan and his wife are accused of granting favours to a powerful real estate tycoon, Malik Riaz, in return for donations and gifts). Both deny the charges.

Khan has long since decoded that the military would be forced to back down by the danger of civil unrest, direct conflict, and general humiliation. Some in the institution and the civilian apparatus support him. He will advance with all his strength and thunder.

Some see parallels in Khan’s populism (and his inherent authoritarian streak) with Germany before the Second World War. At that time, the Weimar Republic was severely divided, with both societal and political divisions and economic instability. Adolf Hitler made alliances with some parts of the elite and industrialists. Hitler also ensured that the German military was purged of his opponents and filled with loyalists. This allowed Hitler to consolidate and expand his power.

Khan’s constant attack on the army leadership seemed aimed at ensuring that the institution caved into his demand. Many in the institution sympathize with him, considering Imran’s political opponents corrupt and inept. The biggest wild card has been the Supreme Court. Despite divisions within the court, Chief Justice Umar Atta Bandial has faced accusations of bias and favouritism towards Khan. Under his leadership, the court has provided exceptional relief to Khan amidst numerous legal cases.

The court’s alignment with Khan and its confrontational stance towards the military implies that they perceive their interests to be aligned with Khan’s.

Unable to control the judges, the ruling coalition has been forced to finally attempt street agitation. Maulana Fazal-urRehman, the head of the JUI-F religious political party, has been tasked with providing the muscle. Thousands of his stick-wielding supporters are expected to assemble outside the Supreme Court on Monday.

The tactic is aimed at pressuring the Bandial-led supreme court bench to desist from initiating contempt proceedings against the government, which has refused to hold provincial elections on 14 May.

The Supreme Court’s deadline has already passed. Next week will take Pakistan to the brink as political fighting takes a further violent turn.

A Stark Choice for the Military

The military is under attack from various fronts. Its traditional reputation is damaged, and opponents are rejoicing. The events of 9 May, when PTI protesters attacked military installations, including the GHQ and the Lahore Corps Commander’s House, brought embarrassment.

The ‘myth is broken,’ the son of PTI leader Ejaz Chaudhry gleefully claimed. In order to regain prestige, the military commanders will have to move quickly, both on the political and communication fronts. The military as an institution has a lot of soul-searching to do anyway.

‘The entire media apparatus that the military mobilised to delegitimize traditional parties and elevate Khan to office has turned on the military,’ as Mosharraf Zaidi, a political commentator, noted. Authorities are now arresting and actively searching for those involved in acts of arson and vandalism, utilising surveillance footage and other means to identify the culprits.

But the current political turmoil is more of a battle of survival for all the main players involved, and the possibilities of dialogue and reconciliation have diminished with every passing day. There is a coordinated effort to create controversy around Army Chief Gen. Asim Munir and his command.

Various forms of online content, such as vlogs, WhatsApp messages, tweets and TikTok videos, are being used to build pressure and shape public perception regarding Gen. Munir’s role. There has been speculation that this cannot happen without inside support. A Pakistani army spokesperson has strongly denied reports of any rift and asserted that the unity of command is intact.

Khan himself accused the army chief of being solely responsible for the current political turmoil during his media interactions with the news media in the Islamabad High Court earlier this week. Khan had initially made ISI internal security wing chief Maj. Gen. Faisal Naseer, a Munir confidante and loyalist, his target.

Now he has thrown the gauntlet straight at Gen. Asim Munir.

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