It would be interesting to try and inhabit the mind of Imran Khan at this point in time. Though, if the recently released official video of his gym routine ahead of the capital’s seizure is any guide, he is focused more on preparing physically for this ‘decisive moment’ and whatever thinking there was, is over and done with.
So what is it that has forced Khan to take this extreme step?
By threatening to paralyse Islamabad on November 2, he is certainly not looking at the general election scheduled for 2018 to decide the political fortunes of his party. The Sharifs have established a reputation for winning all elections or most, and them being in power till the end does not help. Naturally, he wants to see the present setup packed and clearly sees a role for himself and his party in whatever system that emerges after.
Why is this the best time to strike? Because Imran Khan does not want to let the prime minister’s involvement in Panama scandal dilute and wither like the allegations of rigging in the last general election that had kept him and his party in the out for four months in 2014.
Since the Islamabad lockdown is PTI’s singular initiative, with no political allies in sight, there certainly are crucial forces and factors in the system that Khan is banking on. There is the inevitable civil-military tension brought into sharp focus following the Dawn report. The showdown itself is timed in the weeks ahead of the new army chief’s appointment and can add to the government’s panic.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has started hearing the Panama Papers petitions, having accepted PTI’s request for early hearing of its petition.
Another important factor that must bother the Sharifs and which the PTI could capitalise on is the Supreme Court’s insistence on holding of census in the country. Planners have hinted categorically that a new census would show a shocking decrease in Punjab’s population of the total share. This could lead to redrawing the boundaries of constituencies and reducing the total number of seat from Punjab, causing a serious blow to PML-N’s capacity to form government at the centre.
With this in his mind, Imran Khan is justifiably flexing his muscles for November 2. Analysts are unsure of what might transpire once the promised seizure of the capital happens, but they are clear in that the PTI is not ready to wait for the election 2018. “The election 2018 is a far cry. It’s a crisis situation,” says Ayaz Amir, former MNA and columnist who has been predicting this crisis as well as praising Imran Khan for his sheer grit in his recent writings.
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“The party looks serious this time in bringing people to the capital. Now they could be either stopped or they might reach the capital. Once they do, it is not too difficult to paralyse the city. The government is in a panic mode; already there are containers standing as if in anticipation. Things might go out of hand,” says Amir, hinting at the government’s strained relations with the military after the Dawn’s news report. “Now it remains to be seen if they [military] want to sort it out through talks or not.”
Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, a recent entrant to the party fold, concurs the party is focused on agitational politics. About Khan’s decision to go alone, he says “this is a clear strategy of the party. After the 2014 dharna, it has emerged as the only opposition party against this regime”. Amir also thinks that “going alone is deliberate. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto too was alone against General Ayub. Their calculation is that if we do take a certain number of people, we are not sharing the glory with anyone”.
Fawad explains the PTI’s advantages — on the assumption of course that election is the course the party is opting for. “With the PPP and PML-Q’s decline since 2013, the PTI has emerged as the only alternate of the ruling elite, especially with its anti-government protests. The strong dharras in Punjab are looking at the PTI. So the party does not have to work that hard; it may not have a good structure but it has the support.”
A party insider, preferring anonymity, was critical of the fact that “the party is not focusing on the constituency. There is no discussion within the party on the results of the by-election, for example, while the PML-N is a lot more serious that way”.
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The civil-military angle sits well with most observers it seems. Columnist Mohammad Taqi thinks the PTI senses “this unease between the PML-N and sections of military establishment” and it wants “to make perhaps one last push for toppling the PM Nawaz Sharif’s government through street agitation. Parts of military establishment that desired an extension for the COAS seem to be egging them on”.
“Imran Khan had squandered a lot of his political capital during his previous dharna and has been unable to fully capitalise on the Panama Papers issue involving PM Sharif’s family. He has been a desperate campaigner since the 2013 elections and each passing year has added to his frustration. He wants to make up for that before the Panama trail goes completely cold,” says Taqi, in an email response to a few questions.
Nusrat Javeed, tv anchor and astute political analyst, sees references to the Long March of 1993 and Gen. Waheed Kakar in the doings of Imran Khan. “The PTI is not preparing for 2018; they are looking at early election. They want to lockdown the capital. They want the rulers to be disqualified somehow and want the army to seek resignation from the prime minister. That’s the backdrop for the Talashi Dain slogan for Nov 2.
“But Nawaz Sharif will not resign and the military will have to take over. And whenever is the next election, people will vote for the PTI. That is the PTI strategy. The electables are also looking towards it. But my sense is the PML-N will only lose five or six seats and win Punjab,” says Javeed.
This is realpolitik at its best and while most analysts judge Imran Khan with a moral compass in hand for this, he appears unruffled. So is he really not worried about this moral baggage, of using street agitation, derailing the system and undermining the parliament? How will he bear the burden of appearing to side with the military? Would this not come to haunt him in the days to come?
Ayaz Amir thinks that right now “they [the PTI] just want Nawaz Sharif out of the way. Panama scandal is a handy excuse and they want accountability. When the political parties get into that mode, they don’t think [of what lies ahead]. When they [the Pakistan National Alliance] got rid of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, they had to suffer Zia for eleven years”.
In Taqi’s view, “The fact that leaders like Mian Nawaz Sharif and indeed the late Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto grew under the military’s wing and were later able to shed that baggage may also be a factor in Imran Khan’s calculus.
“A common denominator between the military thinking and Imran Khan’s sportsman mindset is that both are tuned for zero-sum games and despise accommodation that is part and parcel of traditional political process. This all-or-none approach has little regard for consequences and image. He seems to have calculated that his politics may run out of steam should this window of opportunity close,” says Taqi.
So what is likely to happen on November 2?
“By the looks of it, Khan wishes to stage a confrontation with the government on November 2 and hopes for a series of unfortunate events leading to a military nudge to the PML-N. The PML-N appears leery and runs the risk of making an enforced error as it did previously in the Model Town tragedy. Barring such disastrous handling of the agitation the PML-N should be able to weather the storm. The civil-military relations will perhaps sour further depending upon the posture the army ultimately adopts. As for Imran Khan, he’ll remain a one-trick pony and come back with another agitation at another time,” says Taqi.
And what will happen to the Panama case inquiry? “Nothing will come out of Panama like nothing came out of Surrey Palace or Memogate,” concludes Nusrat Javeed.