Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party activists and supporters of former Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran stand amid teargas fired by police during a protest against the arrest of their leader, in Lahore on May 10, 2023. (Photo: AFP)
For decades Pakistan has been in the news of all the wrong reasons, but now it may be inexorably sliding towards anarchy. A nation doesn’t always need external enemies to propel its decay; internal contradictions due to political animosities, unabating corruption and polarisation, along with gross misgovernance, can cause greater damage to a nation’s stability and well-being.
The nation’s institutions have to be provided the environment in which they can fulfil their legally-mandated responsibilities, without fear or favour in a democracy, else harm will surely befall a nation.
The events after former Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s dramatic arrest on grounds of alleged corruption at the Islamabad high court on Tuesday have led to an unprecedented breakdown in Pakistan’s law and order situation and its internal stability, never ever seen since the country’s volatile birth in August 1947. The controversial arrest of a former PM by the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force, and the way in which it was conducted, bereft of any civility or discipline, did not show Pakistan in a good light. The Rangers broke window glass panes to enter the portals of the high court, physically manhandled and injured Imran’s legal team and then whisked away the former PM in a rather rough manner to a waiting van. Imran Khan is now reportedly in Rawalpindi, with rumours floating that he will be taken to Balochistan shortly for another trial. Of course, Imran has denied all the corruption charges against him and has openly criticised the Army for its conduct towards him. That Imran was once the Pakistan Army’s poster boy and got PM’s chair with its support is another story.
After Imran’s arrest, lakhs of supporters from his Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf party have run berserk and attacked many of Pakistan’s cherished institutions, like the Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and the Mianwali airbase, where they torched a Pakistan Air Force J-6 aircraft of Chinese origin. The fiery protesters even completely vandalised the ornate bungalow of the 4 Corps commander in Lahore, while the corps commander’s house in Peshawar was also attacked. The violent protests spread like wildfire across Pakistan, with the PTI declaring that if Imran was not released swiftly, Pakistan will be totally in flames.
Some reports indicated that perhaps the Pakistan Army was caught unprepared at the scale and speed of the public reaction. Some also feel that the lower ranks in the Army did not go all out to quell the public protests, perhaps indicating fissures within the Army itself. If so, such differences in the Army’s rank and file may have serious repercussions for the military’s internal discipline and thus its operational capabilities in the near future.
With a thousand fires burning now, Pakistan is also on the brink of a total economic collapse. Millions of hapless Pakistanis were on the verge of starvation even during the past holy month of Ramzan. Despite this, the nation’s polity remains hopelessly divided, with the Sharif family and the Bhuttos on one side, pitted against the increasingly popular PTI led by Imran Khan. One of Pak PM Shehbaz Sharif’s favourites, home minister Rana Sanaullah, has said there are 140 cases against Imran! In addition, the PTI wants early elections while the current Shehbaz Sharif government wants it in October this year, by when it hopes to politically finish Imran Khan.
The former PM has openly accused the Shehbaz Sharif government and the Army plotting to murder him, which to many observers is not a far-fetched possibility. Pakistan’s troubled political history and the many assassinations it has endured remains a poignant pointer of its dubious record. Meanwhile, it appears that Imran Khan’s clarion call of a "jihad for freedom" has found some resonance among his supporters, whose numbers are swelling.
It should be noted that over the past few decades, the Pakistani Army, the most powerful entity in the country, has perfected the art of ruling the roost without staging a coup. It selects its favourite politician and the political party which will remain loyal to it and assists them to get into power. The Army also ensures that Pakistan’s judiciary too keeps within bounds and does not venture into too many legal truths. On occasions, the Pakistan justice system has delivered some courageous verdicts. A sham democracy also keeps the United States and the West in good humour!
The next few days will spell out how the situation crystallises in Pakistan. If the current widespread agitations across Pakistan do not subside, then not just for Pakistan but for India and the wider region the warning bells will have ominous tidings. Pakistan is after all a nuclear-armed state, so its stability is vital for the region. Internally, the Pakistani public will have to find ways and means to restrain the unlimited powers of their Deep State -- the unholy trinity of the Pakistan Army, its intelligence agencies and the many terror "tanzeems" it shelters. Or else it will be business as usual!
A fully functional and stable democracy in Pakistan requires a solid, incorruptible and selfless political leadership, with the all-powerful Pakistan Army back to the barracks. This now seems to be a remote possibility. If the situation does not cool down somewhat, the inevitable will result: the Pakistan Army suspending the Constitution and taking over power again officially. This, however, does not augur well for either Pakistan or the region as a whole. Also, sooner or later, a people’s revolution may be one of the scenarios Pakistan that may encounter. The next 24-48 hours remain crucial to underwrite Pakistan’s destiny.