The gunshot injury sustained by former Pakistani PM Imran Khan on his leg on Thursday in Wazirabad, a town in the Punjab province, while leading a ‘long march’ with his followers to the capital Islamabad, has been described by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party members as an assassination attempt that failed — amidst a flurry of allegations, aspersions and rumours galore. One person was killed in the violence that ensued and the assailant, Naved, has been apprehended and is being held in an undisclosed location. Khan has been shifted to a hospital and is reported to be stable and recovering. Whether the maverick cricketer-turned-politician will go back with a plaster and lead the march to compel the beleaguered Shehbaz Sharif government to accede to his demand for an early election is moot. A prudent decision will shape the tumultuous political churn that Pakistan is now in.
The army appears to be ambivalent about the degree to which it wants to remain the political power broker and is currently on the defensive about its murky role.
The allegations include an assertion by Khan that PM Shehbaz Sharif, interior minister (akin to home minister) Sanaullah Khan and Major Gen Faisal Naseer were behind the attack; while some sections aver that this was an orchestrated event from within the PTI to garner sympathy votes. Other formulations include those who believe that this was an ISI plan that went awry, while there is a small cross-section that is of the view that Naved was a lone-wolf zealot.
An investigation is on the cards but as in many such cases of political violence, it is unlikely that the unalloyed truth will emerge soon. Assassinations of high-profile political leaders have influenced domestic politics across the world and South Asia has its own distinctive experience. Apart from Pakistan, where the 2007 assassination of ex-PM Benazir Bhutto is a relatively recent example, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have gone through their own convulsions over the last 70 years.
The power-sharing arrangement in Pakistan has always had a major actor — the Pakistan army. In the early decades of its troubled history, it was often claimed that 3 ‘As’ decide who will be in the driver’s seat to rule Pakistan — the other two being America and Allah. While the power of the religious constituency (the mullah-madrasa combine) has increased over the decades, the role of America has been diluted — though Khan still accuses a ‘foreign power’ of trying to scuttle his bid to return to office.
Often described as a garrison-state under the jackboots of the fauj, Pakistan began its transition to democracy in the late 1980s, where the power-sharing was within a troika — the army, the PM and the President. Both Nawaz Sharif and his arch-rival Benazir Bhutto engaged in a musical chair pattern as alternating PMs with the tacit nod of the army GHQ in Rawalpindi. This arrangement was disrupted when the then PM Nawaz Sharif, in his second term in 1999, believed that as the elected PM, he could appoint and sack his army chief. However, Gen Pervez Musharraf reminded him where true power lay and Nawaz Sharif was exiled, imprisoned and debarred from entering the political arena till he made a dramatic comeback in 2013 as a third-time PM. Even as it appeared that he would stabilise the politics of his country, the army, with Gen Javed Bajwa at the helm, became increasingly unhappy with the Nawaz Sharif resolve to demonstrate civilian primacy and identified Khan as the challenger and enabled his assumption of office as the PM in August 2018.
In a familiar sequence of events, PM Imran Khan, who had inherited Gen Javed Bajwa (army chief since November 2016), was compelled to accord a three-year extension to the incumbent and fell foul of Rawalpindi, given his mercurial style of governance. Predictably, he lost a no-confidence motion in April this year and Pakistan was back to a cycle of bitter political rivalry and mounting economic and fiscal distress. A coalition government led by the younger Sharif, Shehbaz, is running the nation, but uneasily — as the PTI led by ousted Khan has visibly demonstrated.
It is against this backdrop that the Wazirabad violence ensued and the ability of the Shehbaz Sharif government to contain the turbulence will be tested. Much will depend on the orientation of the army and its own internal dynamic will come into play, for General Bajwa will complete his extended six-year tenure in November. The name of the new army chief is expected to be announced shortly.
The fauj in Pakistan appears to be ambivalent about the degree to which it wants to remain the political power broker and is currently on the defensive about its murky role. In an unprecedented development for Pakistan, the ISI chief and the head of the Inter-Services Public Relations jointly addressed a press conference in October to ward off allegations about having engineered the murder of a Pakistani journalist in Kenya and sought to project the military as the true guardian of the nation.
In July 2018, the Pakistani rupee hovered at 131 to the dollar, and in September this year, it touched 240. It is now at 221. The bitter political discord in Pakistan has imposed an enormous burden on the less-privileged demography and the most urgent task is to stabilise the economy. Khan’s gunshot wound may have a silver lining if it allows for a respite which brings political contestation back to the legislature and a cessation of muscle power and violent street politics. But that may be a pipe dream, given the current scenario in Pakistan, where the desirability of such an exigency — civil political discourse — and the feasibility are inversely proportional.
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