In the brief span of 14 months that he has been in power, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has parried a number of challenges from his growing legion of enemies. Imran’s career in international cricket has groomed him to take calculated risks and accept daunting challenges. In a sense the growing list of his hostile opponents and enemies is an offshoot of his resolve to go after the endemic corruption of Pakistan’s arcane political system of spoils with vengeance.
Imran’s long march to political power was anointed, from very early on, by his determination to take on the known champions of corruption head on. Ergo, it wasn’t surprising, at all, that from his day one in office he let the world know that his crusade against corruption and the country’s mega-corrupt will be relentless and unsparing.
Imran has reason to be proud of the success of his corrupt-baiting campaign. In a relatively short span of time, he has netted the country’s big fish notoriously famous for their corruption. Former President Asif Ali Zardari is in jail, so is former, three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Furthermore, the noose is tightening around other family members and acolytes of these principal sharks who wallowed up to their eyeballs in the cesspool of Pakistani corruption.But Imran’s crusade has also triggered a backlash from the opposition to his campaign on a number of fronts. His paper-thin majority in parliament—sustained at the price of pampering smaller factions—has prevented him from legislating laws to lend more teeth to his programmes. With the combined opposition in parliament regularly throwing spanners in his works, he has been forced to rely on presidential ordinances to govern.
A persistently weak economy, galloping inflation and an inexorably climbing cost of living have all combined to dent his popularity with the masses and lend grist to his determined opponents to challenge him with greater intensity. They think his plummeting popularity makes him vulnerable to their assault.
To bring him down, Imran’s enemies have now come up with the weapon of religious force that has served Pakistani politicians so well on so many occasions in the past. To quote just one example, the charismatic and popularly elected Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was brought down, in 1977,by his political foes led, conspicuously, by politico-religious leaders.
Ironically for Imran, the latest assault against his fortress is being spearheaded by the son of the religious leader-cum-politician, Mufti Mahmud, who led the charge against Bhutto. Imran’s nemesis is Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who inherited the mantle of the large political-religious outfit, JUI, from his father. Fazlur Rehman aka Fazal is a wily, notorious politician whose claim to fame is that he has been in bed with every power broker, be it an elected ruler or a Bonaparte. He was particularly cosy with Zardari and Sharif, which is why Imran gave him the short shrift and sidelined him. The Maulana also failed to keep his seat in parliament and was routed in the 2018 elections by a rookie from Imran’s party.
But Fazal has street power, which matters a lot when the chips are down. His JUI—which is the Pakistani face of India’s prime seminary at Deoband—runs the largest network of madrassas in Pakistan with tens of thousands of students enrolled in them. The latest official figures put the enrolment at these madrassas at a whopping 2.5 million students.
The wily Fazal has an axe to grind with Imran, because the PM had called his bluff. However, to tighten the screws on Imran, Fazal has cleverly put the label of a popular movement against his government. His charge sheet against Imran reads like the riot act. He faults Imran for being in power not through election but ‘selection’ by his mentors in the Pakistani establishment. He holds Imran responsible for the economy’s collapse which has thrown the ordinary man into the jaws of a grinding inflation.
Fazal’s revenge against Imran has morphed into a long “Azadi (Freedom) March” which was kicked off in Karachi and converged, 1,200 km away, on Islamabad on October 31. Since then, tens of thousands of Fazal’s ‘supporters’ have congregated outside Islamabad’s city limits in a dharna (sit-in). The ‘supporters’ of rabble-rousing Fazal are none other than students of his religious seminaries.
Dharnas in Pakistan, ironically, were popularised by Imran himself. He was the first to stage a huge sit-in against the Sharif government in 2014. The chickens are coming home to roost for him. Imran blames Fazal for acting on behalf of Zardari and Nawaz. The Pakistani PM refuses to let them off the hook. He has ruled out resigning as prime minister, which Fazal insists he must. Imran’s regime faults Fazal for staging his protest at a time when Pakistani eyes were glued on Kashmir; the dharna has deflected that focus. Imran is lambasting Fazal for being an Indian agent and even claims he is part of Narendra Modi’s agenda.
The stand-off in Islamabad is nerve-wracking. With neither side ready to relent, all eyes have turned to Pakistan’s powerful establishment. Which side will its scales tilt? Imran is known to be ‘their man’. But Fazal, too, has been infamous for being ‘their tout’. Where will the chips fall? Who will have the last laugh? The jury is still out.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat