In six eventful days, Pakistan’s prime minister (PM) Shehbaz Sharif and his son earned a unique distinction. Sharif assumed office on April 11, the day he was supposed to be indicted and imprisoned in a multi-billion rupee money laundering case. And on April 16, his son Hamza Shehbaz — also set to be indicted in the same case — became the chief minister (CM) of Pakistan’s most-populous province, Punjab, amid an unprecedented pandemonium that saw then-speaker Pervez Elahi — also a CM candidate — beaten up in a physical brawl among rival Members of Parliament (MPs).
Meanwhile, 1,500 kilometres away in Karachi, former PM Imran Khan upped the ante by staging the biggest ever public rally in the city. This came a week after an equally impressive rally in Peshawar, marking the start of the campaign by the ousted PM’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) towards building mass pressure for early elections. Overwhelmed by the thunderous response of the Karachi crowd around midnight, Khan renewed his claims of a “US (United States)-instigated regime change” conspiracy against his government. “My life may be at risk but your independence is far more important for me than my life,” he said, referring to his relentless attack on Washington and its allies, who he believes disliked his bent towards China and Russia.
During his February 23-24 Moscow visit, Khan elicited an offer of 30% cheaper Russian oil and wheat (Pakistan’s annual oil import bill hovers around $20 billion). It was this Russian offer that perhaps prompted Khan to announce on February 28 that fuel prices will not be raised until June 30. The pressure resulting from PTI’s public mobilisation became evident on PM Sharif when he rejected a fuel price hike, saying he wouldn’t like to burden the poor during the month of Ramadan.
Khan’s unceremonious exit through a controversial no-confidence vote on April 9 — his governance shortcomings and disagreements with the military establishment notwithstanding — stemmed from what is now referred to as lettergate, an account of a lunch conversation on March 7 between then Pakistani ambassador Asad Majeed Khan in Washington and US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu. Ambassador Khan’s cable back home was based on official notes from the meeting. It reportedly said the Biden administration was upset over PM Khan’s Moscow visit; that Islamabad should also have “considered Washington’s sensitiveness”. Another point related to the no-confidence motion tabled on March 8. What intrigued ambassador Khan was that it was March 7, and nobody in Washington was even aware of the Pakistani Opposition’s move the next day.
It is no surprise then that an increasingly besieged PM Khan interpreted the cable as a conspiracy against him. The Opposition — buoyed by the military establishment’s claim that it is “apolitical” — played it down as a “concoction” invented to fend off political pressure building up.
Imran Khan’s conspiracy narrative has clearly split Pakistan into two camps. With appeals to bring Pakistani flags to the rallies and project his campaign as a battle for Pakistan, he has infused a new spirit into his followers. The entire nation, he exhorted, needs to stand up against the “imported government” — a reference to the new Sharif administration. Imported Hakoomat Namanzoor (reject the imported government) is a top trend among Pakistanis across the globe. Overseas Pakistanis in western countries, including the US, are staging almost daily protest rallies against Khan’s removal, chanting “No Imran Khan, No remittances”.
Then, there are a dozen political parties and their followers. Now in power, they dismiss Khan’s views as shallow rhetoric by someone who lost his equilibrium. Khan, for his part, dubs them as status quoists with deep commercial interests in Pakistan’s political economy. On April 15, the head of the army’s public relations, General Babar Iftikhar, acknowledged the existence of the disputed letter (cable) — as opposed to the Opposition which had called it a “concoction”. But this has done little to stem the wave of anger — at least among PTI workers and its sympathisers. Pakistan finds itself, perhaps, at a defining crossroads.
Is history repeating itself with parallels to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who too had spoken of a threatening American letter in the summer of 1977? Bhutto was eventually overthrown by General Zia ul Haq in July the same year in a military coup, and executed in April 1979. The ensuing brute oppression by the military dictator largely neutralised street agitation, his actions quietly endorsed by the US then (because of the impending Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).
2022 is different. Now, China and Russia — members of the United Nations Security Council — are closely aligned with Pakistan, a key reason for divisions between the PM and the army. Khan stated on numerous occasions that the country’s future was tied to China. During his Beijing visit in 2019, he agreed to a Pakistani rupee-yuan deal, covering semiconductors, transformers, and broadcasting equipment. He and his team also discussed, during the controversial Moscow trip, a rupee-ruble deal.
While Khan resisted western pressure to condemn President Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine and advocated Pakistan’s neutrality in the conflict, army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, on April 2, slammed the Russian military aggression and called for its immediate cession. It is evident that the military leadership believes in the need for balancing relations between China and the US.
The divergence has triggered a dynamic that sees Khan’s popularity on the rise, pitching him against an all-encompassing Opposition. Will he be allowed a free run in the impending elections? This is the big question looming in Pakistan. Eventful weeks ahead indeed.
Imtiaz Gul is a political and security analyst and author of several books including Pak China Relations: What Lies behind the Iron Brotherhood
The views expressed are personal