What will happen to Imran Khan? | The Express Tribune

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February 19, 2023


My brief encounter with Imran Khan on February 15 was a reminder why millions of people continue to support him despite the many, some highly disturbing, events of the last ten months. In a deeply polarising political environment that if stretched a tad more would break like cheap elastic, Khan seems to have morphed into a national hero who is standing tall, metaphorically, against all institutional wrongs and state’s excesses. For a country riven with ideological and other differences, a sense of collective injustice acts as a unifying force. Pakistan, post-April 10, 2022, is a state in upheaval. Khan’s ouster was the first piece in a flimsy stack of dominoes.

The event at Khan’s house in Zaman Park, Lahore, was his meeting with foreign media correspondents and me. Before I proceed: I’m not a journalist but there is a large number of people who knowingly or in ignorance consider me a journalist because of my past work in media and my current column writing. Since 2018, I’ve been writing a weekly article for Gulf News, UAE. Despite my constant and vociferous and capitalised insistence that an opinion writer who merely contributes to a media house on a per-article honorarium is not a journalist, I’m loved and hated and respected and trolled and admired and despised—in unequal proportions—for my non-existent journalism. Heavens may fall if people were to accept the notion that I might be who I say I am—NOT A JOURNALIST.

On Lahore’s Canal Road, parallel to Zaman Park, was a long row of tented booths, each one decorated with Pakistan’s flag, Tehreek-e-Insaf flag and banners displaying photos of Khan and a local, provincial or national PTI leader or group, “host” of that particular space. In that area, food is served, speeches are made, discussions are held, and comments are made to media. Each one of those present there is a supporter of Imran Khan. He is not in front of them, but they are there for him.

For the first time in the history of Pakistan’s convoluted political landscape is an outpouring of support for a leader who is presently hailed as the sole sign of the power of democracy in Pakistan. In Khan — pitted against a ruling alliance of dozen-plus parties, propped up by the omnipotent Establishment — they see a lone crusader who is willing to fight to the end for supremacy of vote and power of the aam aadmi. In their united support, they have emerged as the emblem of one categorical message: they are with Khan, without any ifs and buts.

Outside Khan’s home in Zaman Park, PTI workers and supporters form the “human chain” to protect Khan. In their words, Khan is their “red line”. Their stance is unambiguous: they respect the law, but they will not let the incumbent government arrest Khan on any allegation that is trumped up and lacks any legal validity. Their narrative is simple: more than sixty cases, including terrorism and sedition allegations, against Khan are nothing but State’s witch-hunt to persecute a leader who contrary to the misplaced assumptions of Those Who Shall Not Be Named and their latest “puppets” is the most popular leader of Pakistan, and who will win a clear majority in the general elections due this year.

A voluntary assembly of supporters that appeared on the Canal Road leading to Khan’s home and the area around his home congregated weeks ago, and they don’t seem to be in any mood to leave. Pakistan is used to a long-standing culture of political rallies and electoral campaigns, but this spontaneous display of love and support for Khan is a unique phenomenon. Leaders frequently announce that workers and supporters should assemble in unity or in protest or to show solidarity for various reasons, but rarely is a large number seen outside a political rally. In the last ten months that has changed, but only for Imran Khan. On one tweet of one top leader of PTI, thousands of PTI supporters gather in Zaman Park.

These PTI humans are not coerced. They are not paid any money. They are not brought to Zaman Park in hired vehicles. Their support is genuine, their support has longevity, their support is dil se.

On the night between February 16-17, the same passion was seen in PTI workers and supporters when the news of Khan’s impending arrest was shared on social and electronic media. PTI workers and supporters work on the simple belief: Imran Khan is not guilty of any crime, and any effort to arrest him is a draconian measure to imprison him to stop him from demanding general elections, which according to political pundits, PTI is all set to win.

Children, teenagers, young men and women, the underprivileged and the wealthy, homemakers and professional women, the elderly and the ailing, the middle aged and the middle class, students and businessmen, retired faujis, the illiterate and the highly educated, the progressive and the conservative — Khan’s supporters do not have a uniform look, but they are all united under one banner. The flag of Pakistan. No longer is the struggle merely for Khan’s return to power. For them, the fight is now for the survival of Pakistan.

On April 9, 2022, Pakistan Democratic Movement’s orchestrated ouster of Khan was a thinly veiled coup through a vote of no confidence, and it set a series of events that elicited an unprecedented public reaction. In the backdrop of the ugly history of the military coup against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his judicial assassination, and dismissals of elected prime ministers (late Benazir Bhutto twice, Nawaz Sharif thrice, and Yousaf Raza Gillani once), the removal of another elected prime minister was the wake-up call for a mostly apathetic nation.

Khan’s ouster was a shocking reminder that not much had changed in the power dynamics of Pakistan despite the Establishment’s constant reassurances of non-interference in civilian matters, and the longstanding avowals of two main political parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan People’s Party, to uphold democratic values, having been burnt too many times in their attainment and retaining of power with the tacit or blatant support of non-civilian powers. Reasons varied but the ousters bore terrifying similarities. What they did to Khan was a repeat performance of what had happened to them too many times. Pakistan was shocked at their jubilation.

The ouster, purportedly, had a three-point agenda: re-nomination of COAS Bajwa in November 2022, dismissal of cases against the top leadership of PML-N and PPP, and creation of a favourable electoral mechanism.

Inflation and other governance weaknesses of the PTI government in March 2022 were the reasons used as justification for staging a vote of no-confidence against Khan’s government in April 2022. At that time, the general view across Punjab, Pakistan’s largest electorate, and other parts of the country was of disillusionment. Khan’s voters were disheartened, and Khan’s detractors were loud in their we-knew-he-would-not-be-good-for-Pakistan. If Khan’s government had been “allowed” to complete its five-year term, ending in August 2023, the mainstream consensus was that he would not return to power in 2023. PTI government’s inability to curb inflation was cited as its worst failure.

Reuters on February 15, 2023, reported: “The consumer price index rose 27.5% year-on-year in January, its highest in nearly half a century.”

Reuters on February 15, 2023, also reported: “Inflation in Pakistan could average 33% in the first half of 2023 before trending lower, and a bailout from the International Monetary Fund alone is unlikely to put the economy back on track, a senior economist with Moody’s Analytics told Reuters.”

Pakistan changed in ways, perceptible and imperceptible, after Khan’s ouster on April 9, 2022. PTI’s parliamentarians resigned from the National Assembly. (For ten months Pakistan’s parliament has been operational with a non-existent opposition, putting a huge question mark on the veracity and viability of all its actions.). Protests were seen across Pakistan. Khan’s vote bank rallied. These who voted for him and were uncertain of voting for him again became unambivalent. Those who had never voted for him became his supporters. Khan’s first protest rally in Peshawar on April 13, 2022 had a huge attendance. PTI held sixty rallies across Pakistan. Every rally of Khan in 2022 had a number that broke PTI’s own records of gigantic participation.

On November 3, 2022, Khan was wounded in an assassination attempt at Wazirabad’s Allah­wala Chowk during his “Haqeeqi Azadi” march to Islamabad. PTI worker Moazzam Gondal was killed while trying to catch the hitman who had shot at Khan’s container. Thirteen PTI leaders were injured. Pakistan went into a state of shock and grief.

Three months later, Khan is still in the process of recuperation, a brace on his right leg and instructions from his medical team to rest until complete healing of his wounds. When I saw him on February 15, he seemed to be in high spirits despite his limited movement.

On February 16, Dawn reported: “A Lahore High Court division bench on Thursday dismissed for non-prosecution a petition of PTI chairman Imran Khan seeking protective bail in a criminal case by the Islamabad police, whereas a single bench allowed him an opportunity to appear on Monday in another petition of bail in a similar case.”

Earlier, the legal team of Khan informed the honourable court that Khan’s absence from court was due to his “medical issues”.

The chants of the PTI supporters at Zaman Park articulate the emotions of millions of Pakistanis who witnessed every part of the chaos unleashed in Pakistan in the last ten months. Dark things that marked the blurring of many lines of common decency, humanity, importance of law, and the sanctity of the Constitution of Pakistan.

On April 10, 2022, a few hours after Khan’s ouster, unidentified persons raided the home of Arslan Khalid, former prime minister Imran Khan’s focal person on digital media.

On April 11, PDM’s prime minister Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in.

On April 14, DG ISPR Babar Iftikhar announced in a press conference that “some stability was returning to the country.”

On May 22, Dr Shirin Mazari, one of PTI’s most vocal leaders, was “arrested” for an old land dispute. Her daughter labelled it a “kidnapping”.

On May 24, police crackdown on PTI leaders and workers began. It was to stop them from joining Khan’s long march.

On May 25, police baton-charged, fired teargas on and arrested peaceful PTI protesters, including children, women, the elderly.

On August 9, Dr Shahbaz Gill, Khan’s former chief of staff, was arrested. In custody, he was physically, emotionally, and sexually tortured. The allegation was “sedition and inciting the public against state institutions”.

On October 12, Senator Azam Swati was arrested for a “controversial” tweet against COAS Bajwa. He was “beaten and stripped naked”, and videos of his private moments with his wife were recorded and sent to his daughter.

On October 16, 2022, Imran Khan won seven out of nine seats in by-elections.

On October 23, one of Pakistan’s most prominent and most loved journalists Arshad Sharif was assassinated in Kenya. Sharif was forced into exile in August. BBC reported: “As a backer of former Prime Minister Khan and a critic of the military, Sharif had made many enemies. Before he left Pakistan, he faced possible sedition charges and his TV programme was banned after suggesting that the military was involved with the removal of Mr Khan in April.”

On January 12, 2023, the PTI government won the vote of confidence in the Punjab Assembly.

On January 14, on the instruction of PTI’s chairperson Imran Khan, Punjab Assembly was dissolved.

On January 18, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly was dissolved.

The dissolutions were a political manoeuvre to apply pressure on the incumbent government to announce the date for general elections.

On January 25, PTI’s spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry was “arrested” for “allegedly inciting violence against officials of the Election Commission of Pakistan.” Handcuffed, a black cloth covered his face when brought to court during his almost week-long incarceration.

Persecution of social media users, mostly PTI supporters, now includes arrests, instant judgements, and sentences of three-year imprisonment.

The questions abound. Will Imran Khan be arrested or not? What purpose will his arrest serve? What tactic will work to impede the growing popularity of Khan? Will elections for Punjab and KP assemblies be held in the constitutionally mandated time? Will general elections be held on time?

Pakistan awaits.

At the end of the session with Khan on February 15, I said to him: “If they imprison you, you will definitely win the election.”

Imran Khan laughed.

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