Just a day before his long sought-after meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed a gathering of thousands in Washington, D.C., where he launched into his usual tirade against the opposition and their alleged corruption being the only reason for his country’s poverty and other problems.
While Capital One Arena, the venue for Imran Khan’s public meeting located around a dozen blocks away from the White House, was ringing with zealous songs, patriotic anthems, and party slogans, his government back in Pakistan’s Punjab province had stopped an opposition leader from holding a public meeting in the city of Faisalabad.
That was the second attempt in less than a month. Earlier, the local administration had created hurdles in Mandi Bahauddin district to stop Maryam Nawaz, daughter of the jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, from holding a public meeting. Maryam, the most charismatic leader in the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) party, is struggling to build up pressure for the release of her father.
She has recently circulated a secretly recorded video of accountability court judge Arshad Malik, who sentenced Nawaz Sharif to a seven-year jail term. In the video, the judge appears to admit that his ruling was given under duress. The judge has been removed from his position and Maryam along with her PML-N supporters are on the streets demanding an end to her father’s sentence.
Apart from Sharif, another top leader under arrest is former President Asif Ali Zardari, whose Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) believes the corruption and money-laundering allegations against him are politically-motivated.
Zardari’s PPP is the second-largest opposition party in Pakistan’s parliament and has recently moved a resolution in the Senate to remove the chairman. Sadiq Sanjrani, the incumbent chairman of the Senate hailing from impoverished Balochistan province, is a favorite of both the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the military establishment.
Khan, being the most popular leader in Pakistan mainly because of his cricket glory and his social work, has been under a barrage of criticism following the controversial 2018 parliamentary elections in which, the opposition parties allege, the country’s powerful military establishment secretly forged the poll results in favor of Imran Khan’s PTI — besides pressuring a number of “electable” politicians to join his party weeks before the polls. Both the military and the government refute the allegations.
However, Khan’s popularity is now believed to be on the decline mainly because of the tall and somewhat unrealistic promises and claims that he and his key party leaders made during the run-up to July 2018 elections. The public is also disgruntled because of the manifold increase in prices of daily commodities due to his government’s ill-planned and sudden economic and tax reforms under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Some of the promises that Khan and his close confidantes made during the 2018 election campaign — and often ridiculed by his critics on social media — included ending corruption within 90 days, providing millions of jobs, ending capital and intellectual flight from Pakistan, attracting billions of dollars to Pakistan from overseas Pakistanis, and repaying all the loans that Pakistan owes to the IMF or other international financial institutions within months.
Two more areas where Imran Khan’s government is under criticism from independent analysts are the increasing curbs on media and the expanding role of the military establishment in the country’s political, financial, and foreign affairs.
While foreign policy was always believed to be subservient to the powerful military establishment, the Khan government has gone a step forward in conceding more space in areas such as finance and interior affairs. One example, which is frequently being questioned on social media platforms in Pakistan, is the presence of the country’s powerful military and intelligence chiefs during Khan’s visit to Washington D.C. Reports suggest that the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, will be present during Khan’s meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House.
On the media front, journalists are being taken off air for interviewing opposition politicians and fired from their jobs by media owners if they refuse to succumb. Many others complain about intimidation by the government and security agencies alike for highlighting complaints about human rights violations or questioning the government’s performance.
As recently as July 21, Pakistan’s most widely watched network, Geo television, complained that it had been taken off air once again. Geo’s popular anchor, Hamid Mir, is among several journalists being dubbed as anti-Pakistan. Earlier, three privately owned news channels – Capital TV, 24 News HD, and Abtak News — were blocked for airing speeches by opposition leaders
With all the background in mind, what is behind Imran Khan’s address to the Pakistani community in Washington?
The Pakistani prime minister, after harsh exchanges of tweets around a year ago, is coming face to face with Trump, and that too at a time when the current U.S. administration has expressed serious reservations about Pakistan’s sincere cooperation in helping with the success of its peace mission in Afghanistan.
Gathering thousands of Pakistanis in Washington D.C. could be an effort to convey a message that Imran Khan is the most popular leader not only inside Pakistan, but also among Pakistani Americans — many of whom will be casting votes in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
To ordinary Americans, D.C. think-tanks, administration officials, and Congress members, the gathering conveys the message that Khan is still loved by the majority of Pakistanis and the most powerful man in his country.
It is anybody’s guess, though, if the huge gathering drawn by Khan’s presence will leave any impact on his U.S. interlocutors – or if they will continue to exert pressure for practical steps on Pakistan’s part to get favorable results in Afghanistan.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.