Pakistan’s political landscape is porous and highly unpredictable, making it extremely difficult to write-off any political figure or entity for low public ratings or poor electoral performance. Sudden developments can revive the dwindling fortunes of a political underdog or precipitate the downfall of a stable political actor.
Against this backdrop, all those who think Imran Khan has become a spent political force in the labyrinth of Pakistan’s topsy-turvy politics might be compelled to reconsider their opinions soon. His critics and detractors call him a foolhardy politician prone to whimsical decisions and impulsive thinking. Indeed, Kaptaan, as he is known, is a political maverick, but that is his brand of politics.
Generally, his regular calls for dharna (protests), agitational street politics, and the ensuing failures on all counts, coupled with defeat in the recent by-polls, are all considered reasons for his political decline. This point of view has some merit but misses a finer point: Khan’s political resilience and regenerative capacity as a gutsy fighter.
His recent warnings to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government on the Panama Papers issue are not empty threats. Buoyed by his impressive Raiwind rally, once again Khan is on a solo mission. He has threatened to lock down Islamabad on November 2, along with marching on the prime minister’s Raiwind residence if his demands are not addressed.
Khan’s overall popularity might have declined in the last two years but his support base has remained intact, albeit indifferent — similar to the case of the angry PPP jiyalas (die-hard-supporters) in the 1990s who did not vote for any other political party if they did not vote for the Bhuttos. Khan’s supporters and fans are a tad disappointed in him but they have not abandoned him per se. Khan still enjoys the reputation of a clean, upright, and honest politician, a feat no other politician in Pakistan can claim.
For its part, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has once again mishandled the Panama Papers crisis: initially, by dragging its feet on the issue in the press, and then in the parliament over disagreement with the combined opposition over the Terms of References (TORs) to constitute an inquiry commission to probe the allegations. The government assumed that eventually the issue would fizzle out. However, to his credit, Khan has kept the issue alive and now is coming out on the streets demanding the revelations be addressed.
By not providing a political opening to Khan through accommodation, at the initial stage, the government has backed itself into a corner. It will be extremely difficult to wriggle out of this situation without some give-and-take and that is a political trap for the PML-N. Compromising on the Panama Papers issue has short and long-term political costs.
Eventually, the situation will move towards political gridlock. Prime Minister Sharif cannot afford to cave to Khan’s demands as his persona and family reputation are at stake given the alleged involvement of his children in the leaks. On the contrary, ideally, Khan will not settle for anything less than the Sharif’s scalp.
Both Khan and Sharif will take a zero sum approach to their conflict, where the losses of one will be gains for the other. This is Khan’s last chance: if he scores a major political gain, it will enable him to frame the agenda for the next parliamentary elections — whenever they take place — around issues of corruption, accountability, transparency, and financial misappropriation. This suits Khan and hurts Sharif.
Given the above, the government is confronted with a proverbial catch-22. If it sacrifices the prime minister to save the system, it will cost the party tremendously in the next election and constitute a moral victory for Khan. Moreover, sacrificing Sharif to save the system is indirectly accepting that Khan’s allegations were right and the Sharifs are guilty as accused.
On the other hand, if the government decides to seek the middle ground, providing Khan a face-saving out by allowing the passage of a pending anti-corruption bill, even then Khan will claim credit for it and will continue pinching the government at every forum. Khan’s objective is to score political gains and whether the specific allegations of the Panama Papers leak are proven or not is now immaterial.
In addition, if the government decides to go down a confrontational path and arrest Khan, it will make him a political hero, which would result in a groundswell of public sympathy for him. Speculations are rife that ahead of the November 2 deadline, the government is thinking of putting leaders of Khan’s party — Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) — under house arrest and launching massive crackdowns against PTI workers.
For Khan, this is a do-or-die situation. In the coming days, he is likely to become more aggressive; he will come out with full force and will try to make life miserable for the Sharifs. This is a fight until the end and the winner takes all. Whoever blinks first will be knocked out.
The author is an Associate Research Fellow (ARF) at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.