Expectedly, Imran’s diatribe against the US and invocation of religion has evoked enthusiastic response from his supporters. Large number of people spontaneously joined protests organised by his party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), in several cities across Pakistan, particularly Karachi, a day after he lost the vote of no-confidence. Holding the army responsible for bringing him down, slogans were raised against Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the rallies.
It is no secret that the Pakistan army played a significant role in the fall of Imran by pulling strings from behind while pretending “neutrality”. On the fateful night of October 9, the army ensured that the vote on the no-confidence motion took place as per the orders of the Supreme Court, even if it meant opening the court at midnight for any possible contempt proceedings. To meet that eventuality, a prison van was also kept ready if the court issued detention orders for the contempt.
Realising that the noose around his neck was tightening, Imran Khan that night even suggested to his cabinet colleagues that he intends to replace General Bajwa with his favourite, Lt General Faiz Hameed. Finally, some plain speaking had to be done by Director General ISI and commander 111 Rawalpindi Brigade before Imran finally gave up and flew back to his luxurious residence on the outskirts of Islamabad late in the night.
That irked Imran’s supporters, who openly abused Gen Bajwa and ISI for being stooges of the US and Shehbaz and his coalition partners of polishing the shoes of the army leadership. In fact, Sheikh Rashid, former interior minister, described the new prime minister as “cherry blossom Shehbaz”. Several social media accounts linked to PTI unleashed a vicious campaign against Gen Bajwa. A photoshopped picture of Imran Khan with injuries on face was also being circulated, as if he was thrashed by the army.
The army was livid at this open criticism and lampooning of Gen Bajwa on social media. An urgent meeting of the formation commanders was called on October 12 to condemn attempts to bring down the image of the army. The ISI has identified about 2,000 such social media accounts and about 50,000 pages linked to those. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has registered cases and started arresting those responsible.
The FIA has also initiated investigation against Imran Khan for selling an expensive jewellery set for Pakistani Rs 18 crore that was gifted to him during his visit abroad. War of words has also broken out between the two sides on what role the army played before the no-confidence was put to vote. Be sure, this escalating confrontation with the army would cost Imran dearly. More skeletons would soon tumble out of his cupboard. That would be enough for dampening the spirits of his supporters. His last trick of en masse resignation by remaining members (123) of his party from the National Assembly to force the new government to hold early elections may also not work.
Nevertheless, Imran Khan has put prime minister Shehbaz Sharif and political parties supporting his government in a quandary thereby making the task of mending the relationship with the US difficult. Without the US support, Pakistan may not be able to access urgently needed funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avoid a default on external loan repayments. Pakistan needs $8.6 billion by June 30 only to repay external debts.
There would obviously be a huge cost of seeking favour from the US. IMF loan comes with conditionalities that adversely affects development and poverty alleviation programmes. The US would also try to push Pakistan away from the Russia-China axis-an extremely difficult position for both the army and the new government. To pacify the domestic audience and blunt Imran Khan effect, the new government would seek the US intervention on Kashmir before conceding anything.
The US would have similar expectations from India to weaken the Russia-China axis in the region. The US knows that India’s counter terrorism effort can’t succeed without it pressing Pakistan to perform on this front. It knows that Russia and China have never been helpful to India in this regard.
Therefore, in this fast-polarising world, it would be better for both India and Pakistan to move forward bilaterally rather than seeking external help. For the economic betterment of the people, an accommodative and flexible approach would be required by the leadership of both the countries to keep the two competing neo-colonial wolves (the US and China) at bay.