Pakistan Reader# 320, 25 April 2022
The rise of Imran Khan
First, a populist leader finds its middle class via technology. The phase of neo-liberal globalisation, expansion of the service and IT sector, and urbanisation has produced a neo-middle class in Pakistan, which remained politically unrepresented by the mainstream parties. His populist rhetoric of ‘tabdeeli’(change) and corruption as the only problem ailing the country’s development touched the sensibilities of this urban middle class. The middle class supporting a populist leader was not an outlier in Pakistan but substantiates the wider phenomena of the middle class supporting the rise of populism in 21st in South Asia. The deregulation of communication technology and ease of internet usage allowed Khan to mobilise and recruit people from this class against the narrative of corruption and change. In a state mired with inflation, inequality and corruption, his discourse of ‘Naya Pakistan’ and ‘Riyasat-e-Medina’, an eclectic concoction of the moral and material world that suffused together conservative religious views with anti-Americanism, social piety, meritocracy and anti-corrupt regime for the ‘real’ progress for the nation, found promissory and prophetic support among the people.
Second, bringing the electables into the party. As PTI’s popularity rose, it also became home to the disgruntled PPP workers and PML-Q politicians who were looking to secure their future in the post-Musharraf era. Instead of building grassroots party structures, Imran Khan welcomed the traditional politicians with tainted records but with political prowess to win elections. With electables coming into the party, PTI increased its social base from the urban middle class to the urban and rural poor.
Third, the enabling environment provided by the Establishment. While Zardari followed the policy of appeasing the military, Sharif rebelled against it. During Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, the civil-military tensions were high, especially after the Dawn leaks, and the Establishment was trying to create pressure on the government and looking for alternatives. The initial tactic of the Establishment was to create a popular discontent and the arrival of Tahir-ul-Qadri in Islamabad substantiates it. Imran Khan too, for long harbouring a political office of Prime Minister, jumped into the scene, presenting himself as the alternative and trying to gain political advantage during the civil-military rift. It is somewhere during this period when Imran Khan was drawing popular support from the public that the Establishment conceived of the ‘Imran Project’.
The fall of Imran Khan
First, the failures on the economic front. Imran Khan took the reins of the economy that was in bad shape but left it worse. His party came with a promise of reducing employment and steering the economy towards growth. After three years of rule, barring remittances, every macro-indicator titled towards negative. Since 2018, the external debt has grown to $130 billion from $93 billion; public debt doubled to 14 billion and inflation rose to a 13 per cent high. His term was marred by shortages of essential commodities such as sugar, wheat and gas, which along with rising inflation increased the public resentment against the government. The mismanagement of the economy was also unfavourable to the Establishment, which not only relies on the economy of defence but also because Khan, who had an international appeal, was brought in to bring in new foreign investments, which he failed to do so.
Second, alienating civil society and political opposition. Media was censored, dissent stifled, and authoritarian tactics were used against anyone criticising the government. He aggressively went against the opposition leaders for corruption cases, which had the undertones of political rivalries. With this political witch-hunt combined with the divisive discourse against the opposition and dismantling of parliamentary ethics, the opposition found themselves cornered. With nothing to lose, the opposition formed a coalition to launch a movement to overthrow the government. The anti-Establishment and anti-government narrative of the PDM against the backdrop of economic slowdown, not only made the Establishment embarrassed as failures of government were also perceived as the failures of the military but the same sentiments also resonated with the masses.
Third, factionalism in provincial politics. PTI not only won the mandate at the federal level but also was able to form government in the KP and Punjab, and became a coalition partner in Balochistan. With such a strong mandate, Khan chose inexperienced candidates who did not have their core constituency, for the post of Chief Minister in both Punjab and KP. It became difficult for both Buzdar and Mahmood Khan to manage the affairs of Lahore and Peshawar respectively, and created factionalism within the party. The discontent and factionalism became the primary vehicle through which the opposition mobilised the support of the disgruntled members.
Fourth, civil-military tensions heightened as Imran Khan tried to challenge the military dominance. Khan’s government also passed a law to allow Prime Minister to extend the tenure of service chiefs, and subsequently extended the tenure of General Bajwa for three years. However, Khan ran into a confrontation with the military over the refusal to induct the new chief of ISI after military command had passed the orders. While Khan wanted to retain the incumbent DG ISI Faiz Hameed, and subsequently promote him as the next COAS, military leadership wanted a change of guard to check the political ambitions of the incumbent ISI.
With pressures already rising on the government from all quarters – the opposition, economy, discontent in provincial politics, and coalition partners, Imran Khan’s defiance of the Establishment was a trigger that was required for all these issues to unravel. The Establishment’s retreat signalled the shift in balance of power, and electables and coalition partners all crossed the floor in unison to discredit the government. Contrary to the popular perception that the Establishment pulled the guillotine on Imran Khan’s tenure, his ouster was a culmination of multiple factors, which unravelled as the Establishment retreated.