In Pakistan, a country at war with itself, it’s tough to be an ex-Prime Minister. Imran Khan is learning it the hard way. Once a darling of the all-powerful Establishment (code name for Army) is descending into the political wilderness, like many of his predecessors. His fault? Well, he did the unthinkable, grabbed the bull by its horn. In response, the same Establishment that once pampered Khan into power is all set to dismantle him, day by day, and case by case.
Let’s unravel the remarkable ascent and sudden downfall of a cricket star-turned-politician, who once captivated the attention with his cricketing prowess, charisma, and the espoused ideals of accountability and transparency. However, his trajectory came crashing down under the weight of his own shortcomings, leaving a trail of shattered dreams and disillusionment in its wake. As a classic case of populism taking a perilous turn, Imran’s story needs to be told and revisited.
Imran Khan: The Rise
Let’s dial the clock back to the summer of 1992 when Imran led his “cornered tigers” to their maiden cricket World Cup win. In a country starved of achievements and accomplishments, this was a big deal. Imran Khan was already a celebrity but the title catapulted him to the status of the “greatest Pakistani” ever. He could have leveraged his status to bring goodwill to Pakistan but, guided by his lust for power, he chose to be an ambassador of chaos and anarchy. In hindsight, Pakistan would rue the World Cup victory that shaped the legend of Imran Khan.
Imran’s rise is a cautionary tale of coercion, deceit, misplaced priorities, crooked politics, greed, and unchecked ambitions – deftly scripted by the Army. To put that in perspective, countries have armies but, in the case of Pakistan, the army has a country. It’s all-powerful, all-pervading, omniscient, and beyond the limitations of the Constitution and accountability, whatsoever. The Army has a history of rigging mandates, staging coups, assassinating Prime Ministers, and dismantling other institutions – all with impunity. In Imran’s case, the army created a Frankestine monster that went rogue and threatened to bring down the entire country.
Political Forays :
By the mid-1990s, the Army had realized the need for a political asset that could serve its vested interests far into the future. It was the time when the country was coming out of the shadows of a brutal, decade-long Army rule of Gen. Zia, and democracy was set to regain the lost ground. In an unprecedented move, the chiefs of the two major political parties, Nawaz Sharif (PML N) and Benazir Bhutto (PPP) had agreed on a historic “Charter of Democracy.”
Both leaders pledged not to seek the Army’s help to claw into power and send the Army back to where it belonged, into the barracks. But for an army that never won a war and never lost an election, the idea of losing unchecked power was simply unacceptable. Unnerved and alerted, the army sprung into action and went ahead with “Project Imran,” which could have ended up as a masterpiece in “political engineering” had Imran played by the Army’s rules.
Project Imran was all about creating a third force to keep on a leash the two major political parties, PML (N) and PPP. For the then Army dispensation, Imran was the best bet, given his charm, larger-than-life status, and willingness for a Faustian bargain. Compromising his moral compass for political gains, Imran was quick to jump into bed with the Army under the tutelage of Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul. In 1994, Khan hitched his wagon to the Jamiat-e-Pasban, a breakaway faction of Jamaat-e-Islami – the party that once advocated Islamic rule over undivided India.
Two years later, Khan decided to chart his own course, at the behest of the Army, of course, when he came up with his foundation, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). He contested the 1996 general elections from two constituencies but failed miserably. The military dictatorship made a comeback in Pakistan in 1999 with Gen. Musharraf overthrowing the Nawaz Sharif government. Ironically, Imran, currently the self-proclaimed defender of democracy, back then batted for the coup, stating that it was instrumental to “end corruption, clear out the political mafias.”
By the end of the decade-long Mushraff dictatorship, Pakistan found itself in familiar territory, facing a civil war-like situation. The Army was at it again, as it carried out the assassination of Benazir Bhutto at a political rally in Peshawar. When the situation was about to explode, the Army cut a deal with Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and brought PPP into power. For the next decade, Pakistan saw something unprecedented, a smooth transition of power from one civilian government to another, and a slew of reforms, the 18th Amendment for one.
Undoing the Good:
Just when democracy was gaining a foothold, the Army let Imran loose. The man who labeled the “Charter of Democracy” as a Mukmuka (shady agreement) went after the 18th Amendment which guaranteed more autonomy to the states and reduced the Army’s hegemony in politics. At the behest of the Army, Imran set out to dismantle the Charter of Democracy and reverse what little good the successive civilian governments had achieved over the decade.
A few years down the line, Imran hogged the limelight yet again; this time due to the agitation against the American drone attacks. Again, like a scripted play, the Army triggered its pawn into action to divert the public attention from the issue. Their ulterior motive? To perpetuate their own prosperity, fueled by the flow of American funds. Insiders tell us, the Army was generously “compensated” by the Americans for each drone strike they carried out in Pakistan.
The Army has an unstated policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, which was evident here too. It, on one hand, fuelled protests to show solidarity with the drone attack victims, and, on the other, colluded with the Americans to execute these attacks. Regardless of how low one chooses to stoop, the depths the Pakistan Army has repeatedly descended to will always be beyond his reach. After all, Taqwa is right in the Army’s motto. The Quranic concept, in a broader context, sanctions an excessively strict approach, leading to self-righteousness.
Since the Ayub Khan days, the Army has spun some clever narratives and forced them into the collective consciousness to maintain their hegemony. “Politicians are corrupt,” “Pakistan craves a strong leader,” “Only the Army can save us,” and other such populist narratives found their way into the very textbooks that would shape the young minds, molding them into submissive followers of an oppressive regime. Just when these narratives were waning down, Imran came across to pedal them again into the general psyche and turn the masses against democracy.
In a series of cleverly orchestrated events, the Army arranged massive roadshows (Jalsas) and afforded airtime on national media from where Imran could blatantly peddle lies and agenda. While the entire propaganda machinery was busy creating the legend of Imran Khan, the truth became obscured, justice eclipsed, and the genuine aspirations of the people stifled under the weight of deceptive, poisonous propaganda. In the post-truth era, Imran was emerging as a beacon of hope for the masses that craved a messiah to bail them out of crisis and despair.
In 2014, Imran mounted a nationwide campaign to dislodge the then-PM, Nawaz Sharif who was asserting himself. According to a journalist, Izaz Sayed, Imran, and his then-mentor the ISI chief, Gen. Zahir-ul-Islam met in London to chalk out the removal plan. For the most part, the plan went ahead as intended, as Imran was once again on the streets, launching attacks on the Pakistan parliament, PTV, and other institutions. These violent protests set the tone for an unstable, convoluted political landscape, which played into the Army’s hands.
The Army thrives in such tumultuous environments. Leveraging the political instability, the then-Army chief, Rahil Sharif forced Nawaz Sharif to greenlight a military operation. Again, the civilian government had yielded to the demands of the Army. Again, Pakistan lost, courtesy of Imran Khan. Nawaz Sharif was gradually achieving some good for his people, as Pakistan for the first time experienced some relief from power cuts, terrorism, and inflation. When things were looking normal by Pakistani standards, Imran decided to play spoilsport, yet again.
In a nation accustomed to volatility, political stability has been a fleeting luxury. Monkeying around with the blessings of Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the then-DG ISI, Imran derailed the political stability painstakingly achieved by civilian governments in over a decade. The frequent long marches, dharnas (one even lasted for 126 days), and the narrative of “Chor” and “Daku” got big on Nawaz Sharif, a Premier with limited capabilities and influence. Just take Imran out of the equation, Pakistan had a real chance of a meaningful change under unbroken civilian rule.
Imran’s actions shattered the fragile sense of normalcy and dashed the aspirations of a nation yearning for sustainable development. His penchant for disruption instead of constructive engagement only deepened the cycle of uncertainty and plunged Pakistan into a deeper abyss. Imran developed a nexus with the then-Army Chief, Gen. Bajwa, and Chief Justice Saqib Nisar to push Nawaz out of the premiership. Interestingly, Nawaz was tried for the Panama leaks but disqualified for Akama through a legal principle that had no precedent whatsoever.
Ascendence to Power:
This signaled the start of an era of “same-page” politics with the Military, Judiciary, and Imran – all aligning together to create a Hybrid Democracy. With Nawaz out of the political scene, the Army was hard-pressed to break Nawaz’s vote bank in Punjab and pave the way for Imran in the 2018 general elections. That’s where the TTP, a far-right Islamic party led by Khadim Rizvi steps in, instead, was made to step in. Together with TTP, Imran mounted a blasphemy campaign against PML (L). In an already radicalized society, the ploy worked like a charm.
The blasphemy accusations ignited fervor, sowed discord among the masses, polarized an already fragile social fabric, amplified the divisions, and perpetuated a culture of intolerance and fear. It’s one more chapter in Imran’s dark legacy that left a deeply unsettling impact on the nation. The Mula-Maulana brigade also kicked in, issuing Fatwas against PML (N). The situation took a grievous turn when the Army booked several PML (N) leaders before the elections.
On one hand, the Army dismantled PML (N), and, on the other, it channeled the electables into PTI. As a side note, the electables are a special category of politicians in Pakistan.
Affluent and well-known in their respective constituencies, these politicians hop from one party to another on the Army’s directions. With all bases covered, the stage was set for Imran to ascend to power in 2018. What was supposed to end the political circus proved to be the beginning of another circus, a more grievous and pretentious one than anything the country had ever witnessed.
Imran as the Premier:
Riding on the wave of populism and the Army’s support, Imran stormed into power with a mandate to stamp out endemic corruption, stem the economic rot, and steer Pakistan toward an equitable future. Unfortunately, the public hinged their hopes on someone “all gloss and no substance.” Lacking morality, vision, and a clear ideology, Imran was on a weak wicket, batting on behalf of the Army to get into power and stay there as long as he could. For Prime Minister Imran, the mandate soon faded into the background and later was relegated to the shadows.
In Imran’s entire tenure of four years, the real issues that demanded attention were shrouded in a smokescreen of manufactured narratives perpetuated by Imran’s real masters, the Army. The ideals of democracy, justice, accountability, and transparency that once struck a chord with the disillusioned citizens yearning for a change, gave way to greed, fake religiosity, impractical ideas, and U-turns. Instead of long-term strategic economic reforms, he preferred temporary, populist measures like the Murghi Paal and Katta Farba and Katta Paal schemes.
On the diplomacy front, Imran was not just a failure but an international embarrassment. He flouted diplomatic decorum just too frequently only to the embarrassment of Pakistan at the global stage. His inability to effectively engage with global leaders, navigate complex dynamics, and advance Pakistan’s interests left a glaring void in the nation’s diplomatic stature. On every global platform, Imran failed to raise international support for tackling pressing issues like poverty, education, and more. Instead, he chose to pedal the Islamophobia narrative.
Over the years, the Army’s PR machinery has gone on an overdrive to portray Imran as “Sadiq” and “Ameen,” meaning truthful and trustworthy. Even the Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar echoed the same sentiment in a court statement. However, his “integrity” was exposed when charges of rampant corruption surfaced in the Imran household. Imran’s current wife and Murshid, Bushra Bibi was reportedly the kingpin of several organized illegal activities. Imran, who personally had managed to stay immune to corruption charges, was embroiled in the Toshakhana case. And, then came the Al-Qadir Trust case that brought down the facade of Imran’s integrity narrative.
Imran Khan: The Fall
When a rich man went broke, he was asked how and when it happened. His reply: slowly at first, and then all at once. Like a hoax, Imran stood exposed when reality caught up with him. Imran’s personality flaws, endemic corruption, crippling economic slowdown, and a fallout with General Bajwa sowed the seeds of his departure. The “all at once” moment, though, came when a series of corruption cases surfaced that shattered the illusion of his leadership and integrity.
Fallout with Gen. Bajwa:
Imran and Gen. Bajwa had a symbiotic power-sharing relationship with one’s power hinging on the other’s support. The dynamic changed by the middle of 2020 when Imran’s failings became too evident to ignore for Bajwa who faced public scrutiny for catapulting Imarn into power. The “Donkey King,” as the opposition labeled Imran, failed on all fronts, be it governance, economy, corruption, foreign policy, or terrorism. As if this wasn’t enough, there was another caveat, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed – the then ISI chief who inadvertently scripted Imran’s downfall.
Typical of ISI chiefs, Faiz Hameed had the skills and inclination for handling “dirty jobs.” From silencing critics to making politicians fall in line, he did it all for Imran. Faiz Hameed, in Imran’s eyes, embodied a worthy successor to Bajwa — the next Army chief who would safeguard his hold on power. Imran’s choice of friends has been consistently poor and Faiz Hameed wasn’t an exception. Hameed’s true colors emerged as he proved to be excessively ambitious, frequently defying the chain of command and acting independently. This didn’t bode well with Bajwa.
The Afghanistan fiasco was a stark reminder of Hameed’s despotic disposition. Weeks following the US’s unceremonious exit from Afghanistan, Hameed was spotted in Kabul manipulating the situation. Unnerved, the US didn’t take it lightly, and neither did Bajwa. Notwithstanding Imran’s stiff opposition, Bajwa had Hameed replaced as ISI chief, reportedly on the US’s instructions. By the time Hameed was pushed out of the focus, he had successfully created fissures within his Institution and caused irreparable damage to the Imran-Bajwa relationship.
Imran’s Grand Designs:
Strengthening and prolonging his grip on power was the only bottom line in Imran’s politics. Whether that meant eliminating the opposition, undermining democracy, or dismantling institutions, Imran couldn’t care less. His ingenious plan to this end was simple: have trusted people in key positions. He leveraged all the “spiritual” and political powers at his disposal to install General Faiz as the Army Chief and Justice Bandial as the Chief Justice.
The opposition could sense the unprecedented crackdown coming their way if they allowed the trio to take shape. This obviously unnerved them enough to mount a counterattack, hence, the no-confidence motion. Even the Army rank and file feared a witch hunt, which could destabilize the very institution to its core. Add to it the bad blood between the then Army chief, Gen Bajwa, and Imran Khan, and Imran Khan’s foreign policy blunders, and inability to stem the economic rot – ousting Imran Khan was the only way to dodge the bullet for the Army.
Imran’s Fatal Flaws:
Imran’s character flaws were profound enough to undermine his larger-than-life stature, built on his exploits on the cricket field, and a deftly executed PR campaign. His arrogance alienated him from everyone, be it the Pakistani public or the likes of Jahangir Tareen who funded Imran’s household and party for years. Enveloped in a grandiose self-perception, Imran saw himself as a Messiah who was immune to fallibility and destined for greatness. The inflated self-assurance defined his persona and shaped his actions and perceptions throughout his political journey.
Imran’s tenure as Prime Minister was marred by a disturbing set of misplaced priorities and a relentless vendetta against opposition leaders. While Pakistan grappled with existential crises, it was expected that Imran would rise to the occasion and address them head-on. However, he prioritized personal grudges over national interests, targeting the Sharifs, Zardaris, and anyone who dared to question or offer constructive criticism. These are tell-tale signs of narcissism, a fascist streak, and a totalitarian mindset that pounced on the slightest pretext to assert control.
Imran Khan’s maximalist position, characterized by an uncompromising stance and reluctance to engage with the opposition, hindered the possibility of finding a middle ground for conflict resolution and progress in Pakistan. His refusal to sit with the opposition and explore avenues of consensus limited the opportunities for constructive dialogue and cooperation – two defining characteristics of democracy. This approach perpetuated political polarization and hindered the country’s ability to address pressing issues through inclusive and balanced decision-making.
Hamid Mir was instrumental in helping Imran build the “Tabdeeli” narrative that led him into power years later. Imran even turned against the renowned journalist who dared to speak up against injustice, only to face the wrath of the powerful ISI. That was typical Imran – ungrateful, opportunistic, and immoral – ready to discard allies and principles when they no longer served his agenda. This led to a trust deficit between Khan and his associates and party workers.
No Vision, No Spine:
Imran lacked vision and spine, as evidenced by his too frequent U-turns. His policy reversals on almost all issues reflected opportunism, inconsistency, and a willingness to abandon principles for petty political gains. Sample this. Imran, as a Trade & Commerce Minister agreed to open trade with India at Gen. Bajwa’s insistence but dumped the proposal as the Prime Minister.
On the cricket field, he was an achiever but off it, his aspirations were unrealistic and ultimately detrimental, both to himself and to Pakistan. Sample this. Imran approached Musharraf with a proposal to be the Prime Minister when the General staged sham elections by the fag end of his term as Pakistan’s self-appointed Chief Executive. He expected a receptive audience, but, sadly for him, Musharraf laughed it off, and the weight of that laughter pierced through Imran’s ego. Embittered and resentful, Imran mounted a vicious campaign against Musharraf.
Another instance of Imran’s hollow political dreams and relentless pursuit of power surfaced when he and his first mentor, Hamid Gul met the famed philanthropist, Abdul Sattar Edhi with a proposal to overthrow the Benazir government. Edhi, however, declined the proposal, leaving Imran’s ambitions shattered, yet again. Imran’s overambitious nature repeatedly pushed him to sink to new depths, effectively turning his once noble cause of democracy into a mockery.
Dogma & Debauchery:
Imran’s rigid ideologies coupled with insatiable indulgence and excessive behaviors also led to his undoing. Imran’s transition from a playboy into a religious fanatic was a well-orchestrated move to make him more palatable to a nation of radical Islamists. However, Imran’s indulgent ways were just too evident and too frequent. As if Imran’s former wife Rahem Khan’s startling revelations weren’t enough, the Army leaked Imran’s audio tapes after his fallout with the Army.
Imran marrying his Murshid, a 50+ lady with grandchildren and a shady past, within the Iddat period, didn’t bode well with the traditionalists. Worst still, the lady reinforced Imran’s dogmas and clouded his judgment and perspectives, leading to irrational, impractical policy decisions, and self-destructive personal behavior. From Imran landing in Saudi Arabia barefoot to transfer postings happening on candidates’ ‘spiritual’ profiles, the instances were just too common.
The No-Confidence Motion Drama:
So, the Army did what it does best, a regime change. But this time, they did it “democratically”, via a no-confidence motion, which was hitherto unheard of in a country where prime ministers are ousted through coups and fake court cases. What do they do with ousted prime ministers? Depending on their origins and ethnicities, they end up being exiled, jailed, or even executed via the judiciary or otherwise. It’s Pakistan where religiosity and dogma outweigh democratic norms, and the Army manipulates the laws and governance to suit its interests.
Yet again, the Army put its act together to turn the tide against the incumbent Imran Khan. The electables were summoned to vote Khan out of power as the Army-orchestrated “democratic coup” unfolded in the Pakistani Parliament on 25th March 2022. What could have ended in a few hours lasted for a fortnight with the no-confidence motion being adjourned and dismissed several times. Imran went down but not without drama, as it took the Army and the ISI chiefs’ personal interference (read manhandling) to force him to resign on April 10, 2022.
Crossing the Rubicon:
Imran evaded arrest until May 09 when the Rangers finally took him into their custody. As images of Imran being paraded on his way to the prison went viral, all hell broke loose. Imran was the “red line” for his supporters, mainly youth who grew up consuming Imran’s poisonous narratives. Fuelled by a sense of outrage, they took to the streets, unleashing their frustration through targeted acts of vandalism against army properties. This was again unprecedented in a country where the Army is above the Constitution and beyond the reach of the common man.
Obviously, the army deliberately allowed the ruckus to happen, even at the expense of public safety. Their rationale was to make it a justification for the long-pending, imminent crackdown on Imran and his party, PTI. This time, Imran and his supporters had crossed the Rubicon and were about to face immediate and severe repercussions. The establishment used geofencing to identify and zero in on the protestors who are now languishing in prison waiting for a trial under the draconian Army Act. The party leaders, mostly electables, were coerced and tortured into fleeing PTI, leaving their Quaid, Imran Khan, to fend for himself. The incident brought curtains on Imran’s political career, at least for the time being.
Imran’s legacy is one of shattered dreams and shattered institutions. Think of Imran as an unrelenting hurricane that swept through the nation, leaving behind a trail of destruction and chaos. His leadership was marked by broken promises, failed policies, and a disregard for the very causes he once championed. Be it the economy, institutions, or the social fabric, nothing stayed immune to the catastrophe inflicted by Imran’s incompetence, fascism, and narcissism. His achievements were few and far between but his failures were profound and devastating.
Pakistan has always been ruled by the Army, directly or indirectly. Any room for democracy to flourish was sabotaged by Imran at the behest of the Army. Political leadership in Pakistan has always been corrupt, self-centered, and submissive to the whims and fancies of the Army. But Imran and his coterie of electables, touts, and sell-outs took it to the next level with the “same page” narrative. His rule was marked by curtailed media freedom with television anchors being removed, shows taken off-air, and even comics targeted – so much for a democracy.
History will also credit Imran with poisoning the already muddled public discourse in Pakistan. His hate speeches, name-calling, and blatant verbal intimidation tore the very fabric of Pakistani society asunder, with trust and unity giving way to division and discord. Under Imran, Pakistan was lured further into the labyrinth of manipulation and deception, just waiting to implode. His impact was felt by every citizen, as promises of prosperity and progress were replaced by economic turmoil, social unrest, and a growing sense of disillusionment.
What Future Has in Store for Imran?
Life has come full circle for Imran Khan. Colluding with the all-powerful Establishment, he shaped his own trajectory using his powers as the Prime Minister of Pakistan to push his opponents into the political wilderness. Imran’s tools have long been a staple in Pakistan’s politics, from intimidation and coercion to torture and killings. He circumvented opposition parties, lined up “electables,” and had people imprisoned and manhandled – all to grab and stay clung to power. The same fate awaits Imran as the shoe is on the other foot now.
Beleaguered, vulnerable, and running out of options, Imran Khan faces an uncertain future. His party is in taters with his close associates (read electables) deserting him in droves. The present Army chief, Gen. Munir is hell-bent on trying Khan in a Military Court, which could push Khan to the gallows. Had Imran not been a Sunni Punjabi, his fate would have been sealed long ago. But Imran lives another day simply because Sunni Punjabis are more equal than others in Pakistan.
In the treacherous realm of politics, alliances, loyalties, and fortunes shift like sand dunes. Even though Imran is at odds with the current Army dispensation, he is an asset nonetheless that the Army so painstakingly cultivated over the years. Would he once again find favor with the Army under a new dispensation, betraying the hopes of those who believed in a different path? Well, it’s the Pak Army. It could reconcile with Imran and relaunch him at an opportune time to rein in democracy. And, for Imran, It is not inconceivable that he, in a desperate attempt to salvage his future, might consider striking a deal with the very institution he once dared to challenge.
Would Imran flee Pakistan, leaving behind a trail of broken promises and shattered dreams? This is a possibility even though Imran denies any such plans currently. However, the Army is apprehensive about giving safe passage to Imran for fear of him returning back stronger. Imran is down and out right now, but he commands a loyal followership in the expatriate community. Imran’s chances of playing out an Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini are slim but then, it’s Pakistan. Despite the prevailing uncertainty, one thing seems certain – he will face disqualification from contesting elections.