Former prime minister Imran Khan released on bail after his controversial arrest. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

A pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, Edward Bernays, once said, “Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.” Bernays was right, as in the modern world both democratic and authoritative regimes need propagandists not only to divert the attention of the masses toward non-issues but also to keep them hostage to the designated paradigm of what they should eat, what they should wear, and whom they should vote for.

This is the reason information ministries are given a key position, as they put a spin on events and proceedings according to the will of government, whether visible or invisible. On Monday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan removed Firdous Ashiq Awan as his special assistant on information and brought in a senior Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) senator, Shibli Faraz, as the new information minister.

Khan also appointed retired Lieutenant-General Asim Saleem Bajwa as his special assistant on information, sending a clear message that the military establishment is not ready to accept the failures of the hybrid regime it set up, which is not only destroying the economy but also weakening democracy and political discourse.

Bajwa, who also acts as chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (CPECA), enjoys a good reputation within the military establishment, as during his stint as director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), he successfully promoted the image of the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, and managed the media as the establishment expected.

So gradually the invisible government of the establishment is becoming visible, as the bad governance of the Khan-led PTI government and its inability to bring the opposition parties to the table for a cohesive national action plan for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on country’s economy has left the establishment with virtually no option but to come to center stage and govern from the front.

The problem remains that a weak prime minister who is the product of a rigged political discourse has no authority to stop the establishment from undermining democracy, as he lacks legitimacy, just like the dictators of Pakistan’s past. This is the reason a few PTI cabinet ministers have started talking about changes in the 18th Amendment of the constitution, which guarantees autonomy to the provinces.

The 18th Amendment has always been disliked by the establishment, as not only does it deprive the military elite of direct intervention in the form of martial law but it also allocates state revenue to the provinces according to their population size, so the federal government is left with not much control or resources at its disposal.

In a time when the entire world is going through a recession due to the pandemic and countries are reducing their unproductive expenditures such as military and defense budgets, the establishment in Pakistan is doing the opposite.

Because of the crippled economy, the establishment can’t take a large chunk of the fiscal budget without facing criticism, as after the fiasco over Kashmir, the defense budget itself is questionable. After all, Pakistan’s defense spending has always been India-centric and has always revolved around Kashmir.

Since Kashmir has in effect been annexed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and in the testing times of a global pandemic even India has announced a cut in its defense budget, it poses a question for the Pakistani establishment as to why not it should not also cut its budget, and reallocate the funding toward better health facilities and giving relief to the masses who are bearing the brunt of the lockdown in the form of unemployment and closure of their businesses.

So the man who projected Raheel Sharif as the messiah of the nation is back, with a more difficult job. Not only will he be required to spin the debate on whether or not to cut the defense budget, but he will also be required to present the inept and visionless Prime Minister Imran Khan as a hero and to project the image of the current COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The new director general of ISPR, Major-General Babar Iftikhar, unlike his predecessor, is a professional who is focused on building his institution’s reputation instead of focusing on projecting an individual’s image. Asim Bajwa has good contacts in the media and with dissident journalists practically banned from the electronic media, it would not be difficult for a man like him to handle the media effectively.

Even the main opposition parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) will find it difficult to raise any objection to his appointment, and both parties will find it even harder to rebut Asim Bajwa’s claims while representing PTI government, as he belongs to the powerful military establishment, not the political class.

In fact, Asim Bajwa’s appointment is a message to the political players and dissident journalists that now the invisible forces will defend their puppet government and that they are not going to abandon this failed project any time soon. However, the question arises: Will they be able to keep this rigged political discourse intact and save the artificial democratic face of the PTI government to continue ruling the country through hybrid martial law?

The current hybrid regime was brought in to power with the help of Washington and Riyadh, and right now they both are fighting the pandemic and suffering the heat of an economic recession. So immediate aid or a hefty loan is not in sight for Pakistan.

From Day 1, the success of the game was dependent on economic progress and on increasing the establishment’s slice of the economic pie. However, both the PTI government and the establishment quickly lost control of the economy and had to fall back on loans from the International Monetary Fund and friendly countries.

So probably for the satisfaction of their egos, the shrewd men of the establishment will linger on keeping the PTI government in power, but they know they have lost this game, and the sooner or later the ship of this engineered political discourse will be scuttled.

The history of Pakistani politics tells us that no direct or indirect dictator has ever left power unless he was forced to do so. So probably along with Khan’s, a few heads in the establishment will also roll.

Even if the establishment somehow forces one of the main opposition parties to help the government to institute changes in the 18th Amendment, and even if more people like Asim Bajwa are brought into the government, it will not save the day for the establishment.

This downfall started last September and since then it has been a journey of embarrassment on the political and foreign fronts for both the establishment and the PTI. The history of the country also tells us that neither General Ayub Khan nor General Pervez Musharraf was able to save himself or their anointed parties despite the backing of their cronies who were appointed on every key position of the state.

So the end is in clear sight – it is just a matter of how long the masses will have to pay the price of the misadventures of the establishment and Khan-led PTI. Probably no political party will want to come to power during a global recession and pandemic, but even so the PTI regime will find it hard to survive, and some in the establishment may be already feeling the heat.

Perhaps this is the reason that as a last resort the establishment is trying to make adjustments to the 18th Amendment and trying to help out the current government by appointing one of its former media managers to attempt to polish the image of Imran Khan, who is now being criticized widely in the country for his rhetoric and not doing anything practical.

When the invisible forces were working on bringing Khan to power through rigged general elections, little did they knew that soon a time would come when they would be in the same boat as Khan and sharing his fate.

A respectable tactical retreat could have been an option but unfortunately, the establishment wasted time teaching the dissident political parties a lesson for challenging its hegemony. Now the more time passes, the more the process of retreat on the power chessboard will be bitter and embarrassing for the establishment and its civilian face, the PTI government.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.