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

Former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has been ousted from power through a no-confidence vote in Parliament, a move he claims to have been orchestrated by the political opposition at the behest of the United States. 

Although he has not blamed the military, the country’s most powerful institution, his supporters on the streets and on social media have alleged the army leadership’s complicity in his removal.

The army, however, says it sees no conspiracy behind the no-confidence vote that led to Imran Khan’s ouster, and has reiterated that it has nothing to do with politics. 

But it has always denied intervention in political affairs. And if history is any indication, the military establishment in Pakistan, which sees itself as guardian of the country’s geographical as well as ideological frontiers, has maintained control over the country’s affairs, be it through military coups or influencing state apparatus in its favor. 

Over the years, it has created and nurtured one political entity over another. But once the novices spread their wings and go “rogue,” the backing is withdrawn and they fall from grace, at least for the short term. This happened with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. 

Imran Khan formed his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Movement for Justice, in 1996 on the promise of ending dynastic politics and corruption, and giving the public an alternative to the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. He also spoke out against the army’s intervention in politics.

His efforts, however, could not materialize, as Pakistan’s political space is dominated by the so-called “electables” – politicians belonging to landowning families whose political ideology is not right or left, but being in power. People, especially in rural Pakistan, where a majority resides, vote for them in their communities in return for sharecropping, and benefits such as official jobs. 

The former cricket star won support of the military in 2011, which is when he changed tack and welcomed electables into his fold – the very class against whom he began his struggle. His party emerged as a strong contender in 2013, but it was not until 2018 that he was able to form a government, as along with some support from the masses, his party was bolstered with electables, and rivals were prosecuted. 

Nawaz Sharif, the chief of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the most popular party in Punjab province, the heartland of Pakistan, was disqualified for life for not declaring a receivable. Many PML-N members were subsequently forced to switch sides, allegedly on calls from men in uniform. 

The opposition cried foul and called Imran Khan “selected,” but since he was the laadla (dear or approved), all attempts to dislodge him were in vain.

Besides some commendable initiatives such as the Billion Tree Tsunami, the Ehsaas income-support project, and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic through smart lockdowns, Imran Khan will be remembered for his drive to “punish the corrupt” – in essence victimizing his political rivals. He failed to reform the police, recover “looted wealth” or fix the country’s energy challenge – his key election promises.

He could not even break the “begging bowl” and continued to increase public debt, and also signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, something he opposed publicly before. His government went after the judiciary, tightened controls on media and silenced critics. 

But the fact that he reneged on his promises is not what made way for his exit.

Late last year, he asserted himself and dragged his feet over the appointment of a new Inter-Services Intelligence chief. He wanted Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed, whom he probably saw as a guarantor of victory in the next election, to continue in the post. This led to the beginning of a civil-military discord. 

In the end the army chief’s will prevailed, and that is when the opposition, which had been trying to remove Imran Khan since late 2020 and had formed the Pakistan Democratic Alliance, took the hint of the military’s “neutrality” and struck back. 

The two main opposition parties, the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party, agreed on submitting a no-confidence motion in Parliament rather than resigning en masse. They also managed to lure some dissident lawmakers from within PTI, as well as key allies whose support had helped sustain the government.

The military might not have supported the opposition getting together, but its failure to ask PTI’s allies to stay with the ruling coalition is telling. After all, “silence is also an expression,” as a former Pakistani military spokesman once said. 

Silver lining? 

The former prime minister is now showing street power, with tens of thousands of his supporters responding to his call against the “imported government.” He has urged his supporters to gather together in a show of solidarity and winning “real freedom” across Pakistan, and has called for early elections, which otherwise are not scheduled before 2023.

Like others in the past, PTI has been forced to take an anti-establishment stance, and the silver lining to this “awakening” could be lessons learned for Imran Khan the hard way, the end of his tryst with the deep state and emergence of a new political class based on ideology rather than political opportunism. 

His movement for “liberty” over “slavery” can only bring genuine change if along with defying army’s interference, this time rather than just taking to defeat the rivals, he gives way to a new crop of politicians bred by ideology and not personal expedience, and tries to end the curse of the electables, for good.

W. Tariq

W. Tariq is a journalist who has worked for Pakistan's mainstream English-language newspapers.