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Crisis in Islamabad: What does Imran Khan really want?

Reuters/Ahsan Baloch
Imran Khan wants revolution in Pakistan.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

11 May 2013: “Rigging! But hey, I won Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, so it’s fine.”

In last year’s Pakistani elections, Imran Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, had its best showing ever. It became Pakistan’s third-largest party, it won Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and some very important seats in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. But Imran wasn’t happy. Given the wave of support he had received in the run-up to the election, especially on social media, he thought he was a shoo-in for prime minister. He had all the ingredients necessary to be one: a rabid anti-Western zeal (he infamously referred to people whom he alleged to be influenced by the Occident as “Westoxified”), a reputation for being incorruptible, and a promise to break from the business-as-usual politics run the by the feudal Makhdooms and Chaudhrys.

So despite not being the prime minister, Imran accepted the election results announced by the Election Commission of Pakistan, headed then by the venerable Fakhruddin Ebrahim, a man even more incorruptible than Imran himself. The shouts of rigging petered out as all the winning parties, including the PTI, geared up for governance. The ones that had legitimate grievances, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party, which were targeted by the Taliban during the campaign, kept quiet.

1 year later…

That drive for fresh politics drive hit a few bumps once Imran picked Makhdoom Javed Hashmi from Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party and Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi from Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party.

He also allied with the Chaudhrys – Shujaat Hussain and Pervaiz Elahi – deciding to march (well, whatever one decides to call travelling in a bullet-proof SUV these days) to Islamabad together.

The PTI had to make some slight policy adjustments. It had made drone strikes its singular policy issue since it came in power, but has to maintain silence now, given that the Pakistani military declared a war on the Taliban and it became clear that it was collaborating with the Americans over the drone strikes and their targets once more.

Still, the one thing that did not change was Imran’s anger over not being Prime Minister. So after some inexplicable waffling by the Sharif government (The chief of the National Database Registration Authority was unceremoniously axed right before an inquiry into thumb identification fraud) over the rigging allegations that would just not go away despite being thrown out by the courts and the election tribunal, Imran found another opportunity to say…

“Rigging!”

And quite the plot it was too, according to Imran. The on-again off-again Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Najam Sethi, who was the caretaker chief minister of Punjab during the elections, was in on it. So was the Jang group, the country’s largest media company, as well the former chief justice, the one whose dismissal triggered Pakistan’s return to democracy. The plot, according to Imran, involved Bourne-like fugitives transporting briefcases from one constituency to another, a lot of counterfeit ballot paper bought at Urdu Bazar in Karachi (where I got my school textbooks), and of course, no successful caper is possible without some help from across the border, so India was in on it too.

Like for any great conspiracy theory, any legal, common sense, non-confrontational solution is impossible. Because the judiciary was “bought” by Sharif, there was no legal recourse. Because all the other politicians save his own party were scumbags, there was no political solution. The media coverage of the election was also tainted. So what did Imran want?

“I want electoral reforms –

“No, wait. I want a partial recount –

“Scratch that. I want Nawaz Sharif’s resignation.”

Apart from the tedious cries of “dhaandli hui hai”, it was unclear what exactly Imran wanted. The accusations were painfully consistent, but clear demands weren’t as forthcoming. Even in the build-up to PTI’s current protest, it wasn’t clear what Imran wanted until he spelled it out, and then spelled it out again differently.

The problem with asking for Nawaz Sharif’s resignation is that there is no legal, constitutional way for this to happen. Either parliament has to have a no-confidence vote, which is unlikely because Sharif’s party has a majority, or the Supreme Court declares his election victory null and void. That’s unlikely because Imran himself refused to take that course. Right before the protests, in a final bid to defuse the crisis, Sharif acceded to Imran’s initial demand for an independent judicial inquiry into the fraud allegations, only to be snubbed.

What Imran wants is a Tahrir Square-style revolution via popular protest. He rebranded the rather blandly named D-Chowk as Azadi Chowk and goaded his followers to make it bigger than its counterpart in Cairo, evidently forgetting how that elaborate exercise turned out. But it took a while for him to get there, because first…

“I shall protest at Aabpara. I won’t breach the Red Zone.”

Islamabad is one of the most heavily fortified cities in the world. Entire neighbours and streets are inaccessible for security reasons. So when a mob of thousands of angry people intent on overthrowing the prime minister descend on to Islamabad’s otherwise calm streets, the government and foreign governments are right to be concerned, especially when the mob threatens to occupy those areas in which the government and embassies reside.

An area called the Red Zone was demarcated, which includes the diplomatic enclave where most of the embassies are located; important government buildings like the Houses of Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the President; the Supreme Court; the Secretariat; and the head office of Pakistan Television, among others. The government had heavily barricaded the entrances to this area using shipping containers and thousands of police officers, and eventually, the army.

Before the march began, it was made clear to both Imran and Tahirul Qadri – a rather disgruntled Canadian cleric who, accompanied by his supporters, is hounding Sharif with his own grievances – that the Red Zone was not to be breached. Initially both Imran and Qadri abided. They made it explicit in their speeches that the Red Zone will not be breached. But then…

“This is the most important speech I’ve given in my career. Civil disobedience! I won’t pay taxes or utility bills!”

A few days into the sit-in, the atmosphere was tense and infectious. Something had to give, and Imran’s supporters were eager to know what’s next. They were gearing up to enter the Red Zone. The policemen had lined up, carrying sticks and shields (after all, this isn’t Ferguson Missouri where the police carries military-grade weapons) and some supporters were beginning to get impatient. Imran began to speak, and dismissed the idea of entering the Red Zone, saying he wanted to be “merciful” to the families of the police officers. The next action “after 12 hours of thought”, he said, would be a civil disobedience campaign. The PTI’s MPs would resign and refuse to pay electricity bills and taxes. Arrest us if you dare, he seemed to say.

Just a few flaws with that idea. Only 1% of Pakistan’s population actually pays taxes. At least 30% of the electricity generated in Pakistan is stolen. The PTI’s decision is inconvenient given Pakistan’s desperate circumstances, which in fact motivated it to ask for International Monetary Fund loans, which, in turn have made it obligatory for Pakistan to raise its tax revenue.

Another snag: the PTI runs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Without taxes, it  won’t be able to govern. Sure, they distinguished between paying provincial taxes and federal taxes, but there’s one more snag: provincial taxes are nowhere near enough to provide for the provincial government’s budget, so the province counts on federal money to run. A more immediate and instrumental effect, however, was that the idea of not paying taxes or electricity bills (which the vast majority don’t do anyway) did not excite his supporters. They became angry in response. So…

“Scratch that. I will breach the Red Zone.”

The sit-ins had began to wane, and needed a dose of excitement. Since Tuesday night, supporters of both Qadri and Imran have gathered in front of parliament, intent on staying there until Sharif resigned. Was there any chance of a political solution?

“I won’t negotiate with the government!”

“I will negotiate with the government.”

“I will negotiate with the government only after Nawaz resigns.”

“Scratch that. We’ll negotiate.”

For politicians eager to defuse the crisis, and especially for reporters answering questions on how likely negotiations would be, Wednesday was a frustrating day, given the U turns Imran and his cohort had taken. At the time this article was written, the government was engaged in talks with the PTI, but the outcome is as uncertain as Imran Khan’s mind.

I’ve given up on trying to guess what he’ll do next.

This post originally appeared at Scroll.in.

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