How Imran Khan’s dangerous brinkmanship pitches Pakistan into constitutional crisis

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Faced with the prospect of an adverse vote of confidence in Parliament that could have led to a humiliating denouement for his government, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan engineered the dissolution of the National Assembly by calling for fresh elections.

Khan’s decision, an example of political expediency aimed at surviving the uncertainties inherent in Pakistani politics, is unique even by local standards. The immediate effect of his action is that he has been able to prevent his banishment into political wilderness. This was certain had he chosen either of the two other options, namely, tendering his resignation or facing a no-confidence motion, both of which would have most likely led to the formation of a new government by PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif. In advising the president to dissolve the National Assembly, Khan left open the possibility of his return to government in the fresh elections to be held this year. If an alternative dispensation had replaced his government, the elections would have been held only in August 2023 at the end of the normal term of the National Assembly.

Leader of Opposition and Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Shahbaz Sharif. ANI

The unprecedented decision to duck the no-confidence motion has led to political instability in Pakistan and stirred up a huge domestic controversy with ramifications for Pakistan’s ties with the US. The Deputy Speaker of the assembly rejected the vote of no confidence citing a threat to national security. The decision was justified by invoking Article 5 of Pakistan’s Constitution that enjoins every citizen to proffer loyalty to the State and obedience to the Constitution and law. However, PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif’s contention is that the PTI government led by Imran Khan has committed “high treason” as per the scope of Article 6 of the Constitution.

Khan’s actions and statements not only sent shock waves throughout the political firmament of Pakistan but also sent ripples beyond it. Khan has relentlessly asserted that the genesis of the current political instability and the no-confidence move lay in a plot hatched outside Pakistan. His insinuating reference to a meeting between Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Asad Majeed Khan and the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu, was tantamount to directly pointing an accusatory finger at the US.

While the Opposition parties headed by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) waited with baited breath to see off Khan in an unceremonious manner, his sudden decision to dismiss the confidence vote and seek a fresh mandate took the entire political spectrum by surprise. Khan has been subject to severe criticism for quite some time owing to his failure to manage contradictions in his coalition government. His reported rift with Pakistan’s Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in recent times may also have contributed to the impasse but that alone does not explain his action. As a matter of fact, Khan has always been considered close to the army and has more than once been referred to as a “selected” prime minister rather than an elected one.

File image of Pakistan army General Qamar Javed Bajwa. AFP

Khan joined mainstream politics in 1996 after a flamboyant two-decade-long cricketing career. He rose on the back of a popular movement that challenged the traditional attributes of Pakistani politics such as dynastic rule and corruption.

By the time Khan emerged as a serious contender for the position of prime minister, the army had developed fundamental differences with Nawaz Sharif for his alleged “soft approach” towards India. Sharif was under the scanner for attending Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014 and for hosting him at his granddaughter’s wedding in Lahore in 2015. In the aftermath of India’s surgical strikes in PoK in September 2016, the media in Pakistan had hinted at heated exchanges between the army and the government, deemed a tipping point in Nawaz Sharif’s rupture with the army. Following this, the judiciary and army drew closer to orchestrating Nawaz Sharif’s ouster for his involvement in the Panama scandal.

Khan’s rise to power was an offshoot of the army’s deteriorating relations with the two mainstream political parties. On his part, Khan was more than willing to toe the army’s line in exchange for the latter’s support. Khan’s benefactors in khaki manoeuvred the cross-over of politicians into the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), assuring Khan his victory in the 2018 elections. Despite the benevolence of the army, Khan could not secure a majority and was obliged to tie up with smaller parties to forge a coalition. He held on to power with a wafer-thin majority at best.

As prime minister, Khan was not new to diplomatic gaffes. His recent trip to Russia against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine was the latest in a long string of gauche decisions. Khan is widely regarded as beholden to the Chinese and his Russian sojourn was, according to reports, aimed at pleasing China. In his enthusiasm to make the Pakistan-Russia relationship a subset of close Sino-Russian strategic ties, Khan became oblivious to the broader ramifications of his actions. The Pakistan-Russia defence partnership remains nascent despite the establishment of the Joint Military Consultative Committee (JMCC) in 2018.

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Khan is not known for deftness in handling even the closest of Pakistan’s supporters. The decline under his watch in Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia, a longstanding friend, is seen as a major setback. Saudi Arabia not only took umbrage to Khan’s attempts to forge new alignments in the Islamic world to bolster his Kashmir policy but also shocked Islamabad by hitting back and demanding the immediate payment of loans, the impoverished nature of the Pakistani economy notwithstanding.

Khan’s ideological sympathies made him a consistent critic of the US’ drone attacks and the war on terror in the tribal areas of Pakistan. That became his calling card among the conservative sections of Pakistani society. Given his record, the local Pakistani Taliban had nominated him as their representative to hold talks with the government as early as in 2014. He earned the moniker of ‘Taliban Khan’. Unsurprisingly, his government supported to the hilt the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021. His statement in the aftermath of the Taliban’s return, that they have broken the ‘shackles of slavery’, did nothing to salvage his reputation in the international community.

With India, Khan has made no headway. His dogged adherence to obsolete UN resolutions on Kashmir and his total disregard of the 1972 Shimla accord, which prioritised the bilateral track, precluded any dialogue with India. Under his watch, bilateral relations remained in deep freeze even at a time when India reached out to all its South Asian neighbours to revive economic growth in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was myopic of Khan to have clung on to the puerile notion that economic ties with India should be conditional to a selective dialogue on Kashmir or a rollback of constitutional changes effected by India in August 2019.

As a cricketer, Khan had a successful career. He was adept at setting the field to suit the playing conditions. As a politician, however, his performance could not match his cricketing prowess. If there is a second innings for him, he will have to learn from past mistakes.

The author is Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views expressed are personal.

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How Imran Khan’s dangerous brinkmanship pitches Pakistan into constitutional crisis
How Imran Khan’s dangerous brinkmanship pitches Pakistan into constitutional crisis
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