The dramatic arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan inside a courthouse in the capital Islamabad by security forces has escalated political tensions in the country to new heights. The chain of events that followed this arrest was somewhat hard to imagine in Pakistan. Mr Khan’s arrest triggered rare pushback against the military, the country’s most powerful institution. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters held demonstrations across the country. Vandalising the residences of the Corps Commander in Lahore, attacking General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Army in Rawalpindi, and setting ablaze military installations at various other places. This kind of anti-army posturing is unprecedented and unheard of in Pakistan. These are the same people, who, in the past, being sick of corrupt politicians, used to welcome the army’s martial law. But time has changed now the army is witnessing its lowest popularity among the masses. The former Prime Minister’s arrest is seen as an action not by the civilian government of Shehbaz Sharif but of the Pakistan Army and this has enraged the people against the establishment. Presently, anti-army sentiments are rapidly spreading in Pakistani society. People continue to voice their opinion against the military on social media. Credit goes to Khan for weaving a successful narrative through numerous social media platforms against the Pakistan army and how it was keeping a corrupt government in power. All efforts by the army to neutralize this onslaught against it have proved futile. Khan has been successful in even passing the blame for the failed assassination attempt on him on Major General Faisal Naseer of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
This public naming of a senior serving officer outraged the army leadership and it evoked a harsh reaction from the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the military. The arrest of Imran Khan is also viewed in connection with this blaming as many political analysts believe that Khan has crossed the army’s “red line”. This is an alarming situation for the army. Because Pakistan is a praetorian state and the army has performed a praetorian rule type role during most of its existence. This is evident from the fact that since Pakistan’s inception in 1947, no prime minister has ever completed an entire five-year parliamentary term, and generals have directly ruled the country on several occasions. The biggest political achievement of Imran Khan since now is that he is able to showcase the top leadership of the army as the power-hungry generals among the masses. Pakistan’s deep state has always pushed the narrative that most of the political leaders are corrupt and are solely responsible for all hardships faced by the country. And the army is the only organization that can bring order and can ensure stability and security. But the matter of fact is that long military rule has left intractable and spillover impacts on the politics, economy, and foreign policy of Pakistan. The most enduring repercussion of the long military rules in Pakistan is its diminished state constitution. With this much charged-up environment with so many prevalent anti-establishment feelings. It seems that common Pakistanis are losing faith in the Army and considering it just as another political organization.
With the ongoing political confrontation and increasing polarization in the country, the balance of power still remains with the military but it is coming under immense pressure. In the past, the army has gone away with any experiment they did with democracy like- direct martial law, the guided democracy concept of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, and General Bajwa’s hybrid form of government. But now common people’s patience is running out because of various reasons like- anger with the political elite, rising inflation, misgovernance, and current political instability. And people are in no mood to tolerate any kind of political arrangement which doesn’t take into account people’s will. The victories of Khan’s party PTI in local elections in the financial capital Karachi and the most populous province of Punjab have been seen as a litmus test for the national mood. This has emboldened Imran Khan who is insisting on general elections as he knows that he will secure a sweeping victory.
Also, all the pressure tactics used by the establishment on Imran Khan until now have made him more popular rather than deterring him. Also, it should be noted that Mr. Khan’s large support base comes from Punjab which is also the core of the Pakistan Army. It is one thing for the army to massacre other ethnic groups like-Baloch, Bengalis, Sindhis, and Pashtuns but quite another to do the same in Punjab. This makes it very difficult for the army to use a massive crackdown on the PTI chief and his supporters. But with so much blood already spilled the army will lose face if it can’t now keep Khan in jail for some good time by getting him a prison sentence through a judicial process. It’s a hard reality that any strict action against Imran Khan will only increase his support base and showcase the army in a bad light. This only adds to the dilemma of the establishment as they don’t want to meet with the same fate as the military junta of Myanmar where the Junta is witnessing a civil war against its rule. But if any reconciliation is not done between Pak Army and Imran Khan then this confrontation will only intensify and may turn into a major civil unrest.