The beleaguered Shehbaz Sharif government is playing a dangerous game in its attempt to contain the rising tide of former premier Imran Khan’s popularity by resorting to an unprecedented crackdown on the media, the opposition and all dissenting voices.
Ironically, this time around, the state apparatus is not even trying to put up a facade of deniability. After cancelling the license of ARY News on August 12, authorities illegally kept Bol News off the air for several hours to ensure that Khan’s August 21 Rawalpindi public meeting did not get coverage. And that’s not all. Even YouTube was partially blocked by the government during the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan’s speech, to prevent it from airing the event on social media.
Meanwhile, the witch-hunting of dissenting and critical voices continues. Anchorpersons Imran Riaz Khan and Jameel Farooqi, and PTI leader Shahbaz Gill are the latest names in the ever-growing list of those who have faced the direct wrath of this government. Jameel Farooqi and Shahbaz Gill were allegedly tortured and even stripped. This is taking the clampdown of media personnel to an altogether horrific new level by any so-called elected government, at least in the recent past.
Then, there are journalists and prominent television faces like Arshad Sharif and Sabir Shakir who had to leave Pakistan in the wake of extreme pressure by the authorities. And there are many others who are being directly managed by the state apparatus, or indirectly through the owners of media organisations.
Yet, the government and its backers have failed to legitimise the new political dispensation in the eyes of many Pakistanis or dent Imran Khan’s popularity, or in any way weaken his narrative of an independent foreign policy and the accountability of the corrupt.
Indeed, Imran Khan has emerged as the only national leader having sizeable support and a committed following across Pakistan. This stands in sharp contrast to other leaders or political parties, which are operating either on the provincial or ethnic level, or representing one particular sect or religious school of thought.
Imran Khan is hitting the bull’s eye when he says that the government is trying to pit the PTI against the Pakistan Army
The recent by-election results in Punjab and Karachi have only confirmed Imran Khan’s popularity, which fails to lose its lustre despite the round-the-clock “character assassination” campaign by the government and its allied media. Imran Khan continues to be seen as the Mr. Clean of Pakistani politics by an overwhelming number of Pakistanis, despite the much-hyped Toshakhana and foreign funding cases brought against him.
All this is causing increasing trepidation in the ranks of the Shehbaz Sharif government and its backers. It explains the desperate attempt by the government to silence Imran Khan’s voice by hook or by crook. The framing of a terrorism case against Khan is the latest attempt in this regard, though it is all set to backfire, given the massive reaction to these ridiculous charges both domestically and internationally.
Imran Khan is being branded a terrorist for expressing his intent of taking legal action against those bureaucrats, who in a bid to please their political bosses, are allegedly resorting to illegal actions against his party members. The way the UN Secretary-General reacted to these developments and the international media highlighted how Imran Khan is being targeted, clearly indicate that the government’s efforts to stifle his voice have backfired.
The Pakistani public is also questioning the legitimacy and strength of the cases and the allegations made against Imran Khan. Meanwhile, the case against Shehbaz Gill shows that the government is applying two different yardsticks to judge the same crime. Gill has been accused of trying to create a divide within the army. However, much stronger statements have been made in the recent past by the convicted former premier Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam, Khawaja Asif, who is now ironically the defence minister, and many other PML-N and PDM stalwarts.
Imran Khan is hitting the bull’s eye when he says that the government is trying to pit the PTI against the Pakistan Army – a situation which he has been working hard to avoid. The security establishment should also ensure that the Shehbaz Sharif government is not allowed to continue playing this dangerous game and use the Pakistan Army for the victimisation of the country’s biggest and most popular political party and its leadership.
As Imran Khan continues to build pressure through his non-stop public rallies and engagements, there are visible signs that the government is feeling the heat. The tussle between the two sides is fast reaching a climax, with the government desperately trying to oust Imran Khan from politics through his disqualification from holding public office under one pretext or the other.
There are also efforts by the government to overturn the life ban on Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification through the court or by some legislation they can manipulate to do so. However, both these options are easier said than done. Lawyers say that lifting the life ban on Nawaz Sharif from holding public office through the court would first require the senior Sharif to surrender himself to the authorities and go to jail. From there he could pursue his legal options, but a constitutional amendment would need a two-third majority in both Houses of Parliament, which this government does not have. Therefore, Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to return to Pakistan until he gets some fool-proof guarantees from the establishment.
All the political instability is also taking its toll on state institutions, including the parliament, the Election Commission of Pakistan and the judiciary, which have also become highly controversial
For the PML-N, getting Imran Khan disqualified from holding public office is vital — it would bring him on the same footing with Nawaz Sharif, and then could be used as a bargaining chip to get him and Sharif senior both back into electoral politics.
For his part, Imran Khan is trying to force the establishment to change its pro-Shehbaz Sharif government stance through public pressure. So far, all the odds seem to be stacked against him. Not just the political establishment in the form of the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), but also powerful quarters in the civil and military establishment are ostensibly opposed to him. So the only way forward for Imran Khan and his politics is to keep the resistance going. This non-compromising stance has already paid dividends in the by-elections and given him an unprecedented surge in popularity.
But all this intense political polarisation and confrontation do not augur well for the state of Pakistan, which is already reeling under the pressure of weak economic fundamentals. To revive the economy on sustainable grounds requires political stability, which continues to elude the country.
All the political instability is also taking its toll on state institutions, including the parliament, the Election Commission of Pakistan and the judiciary, which have also become highly controversial.
Under these circumstances, it is vital for these institutions to act in Pakistan’s interest and defuse the political situation. The only way out of this political impasse is the installation of an impartial caretaker government – for a period of six to 12 months, with the blessings of the judiciary. The caretakers should manage the economy and prepare the grounds for free and fair elections. If this highly controversial Shehbaz Sharif government is allowed to continue and play its self-serving dangerous games, Pakistan is likely to slide into even greater chaos.