Imran Khan’s Faustian Bargain

The predicament of Imran Khan’s fanboys has been somewhat like the pubescent girl who falls head over heels in love with a promiscuous playboy; and when her friends try to knock some sense into her by telling her that your sweetheart is cheating on you, instead of opening her eyes up, she thinks that her friends are jealous of her love life.

No wonder, playboys like John F. Kennedy and Imran Khan turn out to be popular leaders because they understand the elementary psychology of the masses. The puerile multitude doesn’t understand that grown-up politics is about following the democratic principles and institution-building rather than putting the destiny of one’s nation in the hands of cavalier messiahs.

During Imran Khan’s four month long Dharna (sit-in and political demonstrations) in front of the parliament in Islamabad from August to December 2014, the allegations of election rigging and electoral reforms were only a red herring; a question arises in the minds of curious observers of Pakistan’s politics that what prompted Imran Khan to make a sudden volte-face?

The stellar success of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the general elections of 2013 was anything but a pleasant surprise for the PTI leadership. Imran Khan and his political party were only accustomed to winning a single seat in the parliament right up to the general elections of 2008; but in the parliamentary elections of 2013, PTI mustered 35 National Assembly seats and completely wiped out Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province’s Pashtun nationalist party: the Awami National Party (ANP,) and formed a government in the province with the tacit support of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N;) because PML-N could easily have formed a coalition government with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F.)

These facts prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the demonstrations and protests by PTI from August to December 2014 were based on political opportunism rather than any genuine grievance against the government. Imran Khan came forward with a very broad and disjointed agenda: from electoral reforms to the resignation of the prime minister to seeking justice for the victims of the Model Town tragedy in Lahore.

When the government agreed to the demand of electoral reforms, Imran Khan began insisting on the unacceptable demand of prime minister’s resignation; and when the people and the media criticized him for being unreasonable and causing disruption to the normal functioning of the state, he immediately occupied the high moral ground by drawing attention to the Model Town tragedy.

It seems that Imran Khan’s “wish list” was only a smokescreen to hide his real motive: which was, to permanently banish Nawaz Sharif and his family from Pakistan’s politics by sending them into another exile to Saudi Arabia with the help of Imran Khan’s patrons in the security establishment.

This obstructionist politics by Imran Khan was a clever strategy; he knew that he couldn’t beat PML-N through the electoral process, at least, in the next couple of elections. The difference of parliamentary seats was just too big to have been easily bridged: PML-N’s 166 National Assembly seats to PTI’s 35.

Some PTI stalwarts hinted during the course of 2014 protests that PTI was open to a military takeover for a few years. So, if things had gotten out of hand during the street demonstrations and the army chief had taken over, say for an year or two, and sent Nawaz Sharif and his family to another decade long exile to Saudi Arabia, the political arena would then have been wide open for Imran Khan.

PTI could then have easily competed with the only other mainstream political party: Pakistan People’s Party’s 45 National Assembly seats. By wheeling, dealing Imran Khan could have formed a coalition government with the help of the defectors of PML-N who would then have joined the Musharraf-allied PML-Q, which already got cozy to Imran Khan during the 2014 protests.

Truth be told, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf played the same spoiler role in Pakistan’s politics which the elusive Tamarod Movement played in Egypt in June 2013, only an year before PTI’s demonstrations in Pakistan. Apart from a small number of Egyptian liberals and Copts, Tamarod was mainly comprised of a few thousand football nuts, known as “ the ultras,” who claimed that they have allegedly collected “millions” of signatures endorsing the ouster of Mohamed Morsi of Muslim Brotherhood, only after an year long stint in power in Egypt’s more than 60 years old political history. By what statistical logic, a few thousand cultist demonstrators got the right to forcefully remove an elected prime minister who enjoyed the confidence of tens of millions of voters?

Most Pakistanis don’t have a clue that how close we came to yet another martial law in our turbulent history; PTI’s demonstrations in 2014 were not spontaneous uprisings, they were cleverly planned and choreographed by some unconstitutional forces that have a history of subverting the constitution.

Those protests should be viewed in the backdrop of the Euromaidan demonstrations of Ukraine in 2013, Rabaa square massacre of Egypt and the mass protests and the ensuing military coup in Thailand only a couple of months before the announcement of street demonstrations against the government by Imran Khan.

It seems that the “scriptwriter” first realized the potential of PTI’s zealots to stage a sit-in when they blocked NATO’s supply route in Peshawar; it must have then occurred to the security establishment that PTI’s highly motivated youth supporters were very much capable of staging months-long Dharna against the sitting government.

Notwithstanding, in order to assess the future prospects of PTI as a political institution, we need to study its composition. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems, that the worst decision which Nawaz Sharif took in his political career, after returning from exile in November 2007, was his refusal to accept Musharraf-allied PML-Q’s defectors back into the folds of PML-N. After that show of moral uprightness in the essentially unprincipled realpolitik, the PML-Q turncoats joined PTI in droves and gave birth to a third nation-wide political force in Pakistan.

If we take a cursory look at the PTI’s membership, it is a hodgepodge of electable politicians from various parties, but most of all from the former stalwarts of PML-Q. Here is a list of a few names who were previously the acolytes of Musharraf, and they are now the “untainted” leaders of PTI, which has launched a nation-wide “crusade” against corruption in Pakistan: Jahangir Tareen, a billionaire businessman who was formerly a minister in Musharraf’s cabinet; Khurshid Mehmood Qasuri, who was Musharraf’s foreign minister; Sheikh Rasheed, although he is not officially a PTI leader but during the protests he became closer to Imran Khan than any other leader except Imran Khan’s virtual sidekick, Jahangir Tareen; and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a feudal from People’s Party who served as foreign minister during the Zardari Administration until he was forced to resign after the Raymond Davis affair in 2011, to name a few.

Regardless, there were actually two perpetrators that carried out an assault on democracy and constitution during the mass demonstrations against the government in 2014. PTI is a political party which has a mass following; however, Tahir-ul-Qadri and his Minhaj-ul-Quran is a subversive organization which is as dangerous the Taliban. The Taliban carry out subversive activities against the government; similarly, Minhaj launched a concerted assault on the paramount institutions of the state: the Parliament, the PM House and the Presidency.

Here, some readers might like to draw our attention to the Model Town tragedy on 17 June 2014 in Lahore during the course of which 14 workers of Minhaj-ul-Quran were killed by the Punjab police. It was a condemnable and outrageous act and the perpetrators should have been punished; but keep in mind that it was not the first time that Minhaj carried out an assault on democracy.

During the course of PTI’s Dharna, one can make a convenient excuse that Tahir-ul-Qadri was seeking justice for his workers who died in the Model town tragedy; but what was his defense for holding Islamabad hostage in January 2013 before the general elections of May 2013? Those January 2013 protests by Qadri were a carefully planned last-ditch effort by the security establishment to delay the elections, which Nawaz Sharif was poised to win and the establishment didn’t want Musharraf’s nemesis to dictate terms to them once again.

It shows that Qadri is a habitual offender, and that Minhaj is nothing more than his private militia. Bear in mind that Qadri and Minhaj have a lot in common with another establishment-allied cleric: Maulvi Abdul Aziz, and we know that how did Musharraf’s Administration deal with them in July 2007; Qadri’s club-wielding cult wasn’t different from the cult of Laal masjid and Jamia-e-Hafza.

Moreover, it appears that the August to December 2014 protests were also carefully choreographed. The role of Imran Khan and PTI was only secondary; the primary role was played by the security establishment’s stooges: Tahir-ul-Qadri, Sheikh Rasheed, Chaudhry Shujaat and Pervaiz Elahi. PTI is a broad-based political party which represents the urban middle class; by their very nature such protesters are peaceful and nonviolent. Left to his own resources, the best Imran Khan could have done was to stage a sit-in at Aabpara market for a few days.

Both charges of the crowd, the assault on the Red zone as well as the PM House, were led by the Minhaj-ul-Quran workers. Those hooligans were a bunch of highly organized and trained religious zealots who are equipped with sticks, slingshots, gas-masks, cranes and anything short of firearms; which, apparently, their organizers forbade them from using in order to keep the demonstrations legit in the eyes of the public.

The role of Imran Khan and PTI in the assault on the Constitution Avenue was only to legitimize the assault: the peaceful protesters, women and kids, music concerts, revolutionary demagoguery, everything added up to creating excellent optics; but the real driving force in that assault on democracy was Tahir-ul-Qadri and his Minhaj-ul-Quran, which is a religious-cum-personality cult comparable to the Rajavis of Iran and their Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or the Gulenists in Turkey.

More to the point, the role played by Sheikh Rasheed during the mass demonstrations in Islamabad should not be underestimated. It brings to light the fact that whoever controls the constituencies of Rawalpindi and Islamabad can bring the capital of Pakistan to a standstill. Protesters from outside the Twin-Cities can only stage protests in front of the parliament for a few days, but the natives of Rawalpindi and Islamabad can stage a Dharna for months. Furthermore, PTI also won 6 out of 14 Punjab Assembly’s constituencies in Rawalpindi, which played to its strength.

Notwithstanding, if we look at the numbers game in the general elections of 2013: PTI’s 35 National Assembly seats to PML-N’s 166, an upstart party still managed to perform well; but we must keep in mind that PTI won more than 90% of those seats in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. KP, as we know, has been the worst affected province from terrorism; the elections in KP were fought on a single issue: Pakistan’s partnership in the American-led war on terror, which bred resentment and reaction among the Pashtun tribesmen.

KP’s electorate gave a sweeping mandate to the pro-peace PTI against the pro-military operations Pashtun nationalist party, ANP, which was completely wiped out in the elections. And Imran Khan betrayed the confidence reposed in him by the Pashtun electorate when he endorsed the security establishment-led operation in North Waziristan.

Moreover, to add insult to the injury, when the aforementioned military operation in June 2014 led to the displacement of millions of Pashtun tribesmen, who have since been rotting in the refugee camps in Bannu, Mardan and Peshawar; instead of catering to the needs of the refugees, Imran Khan staged a four month long Dharna in Islamabad on the pretext of alleged rigging in the 2013 general elections and seeking justice for the victims of the Model Town tragedy.

Keeping this perfidy by Imran Khan in the mind, it would be a miracle if PTI musters even half of the aforementioned seats in the next general elections in KP; whose electorate is once again more likely to vote for the Pashtun nationalist ANP, which at least had the decency not to stab the Pashtuns in the back.

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, neocolonialism and Petroimperialism.