In Pakistan, all eyes are on Imran Khan and General Bajwa

The Pakistani Deep-State faced a massive defeat in the Punjab bypolls, but does this really mean an end of the road for them?

Meeting being chaired by Imran Khan regarding petition filed by PTI before Pakistan SC against NAB Amendment Act 2022
Meeting being chaired by Imran Khan regarding petition filed by PTI before Pakistan SC against NAB Amendment Act 2022

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

Last weekend, while the government in India levied tax on food grains for the first time since independence, something tectonic was happening on the other side of the border as well; for the first time in several decades, common Pakistani voters showed their middle finger to the ‘Deep State’ there.

In provincial bypolls necessitated by the removal of the ruling PTI government in a post-modern coup, the PTI trounced the combined might of PML(N), PPPP, religious parties, bureaucracy and the ‘deep state’ to win 15 out of 20 seats that went for polls. This has put the ruling PML (N) coalition government under the Chief Ministership of Hamza Shehbaz in a minority, leading to its subsequent fall.

What was remarkable for Imran Khan-led PTI was that it managed to score wins all over Punjab defying demographic and socio-economic realities that prevailed for decades. It picked up seats right from the south (Multan) to west (Jhang, Bhakkar) to north Punjab (Khusab). What was particularly disastrous for Shehbaz Sharif was that PML (N) lost four out of five seats in Lahore proper that Sharifs in general and Shebaz, in particular, considered their fiefdom.

The biggest loser in all these is not the Sharifs though. It is General Qamar Javed Bajwa-led ‘deep state’ that planned and executed the post-modern coup only a few months ago. Sources in Pakistan maintain that while the security establishment as a whole remains pro-PTI (or pro-Imran) in its outlook, the decision-making clique at the top decided to go with the coup ignoring the sentiments of the ranks and files.

This led to the hitherto unheard and unseen rancour against the top echelons of the Pakistan Army among the middle class, a demography that never went against it even after the disastrous years under Zia and Musharraf.

The rancour that poured out on social media stunned the top brass. It also laid bare the fact that the top brass, all in their 50s and 60s, were pitifully unaware of the aspirations and motivations of the younger, burgeoning, middle class who ruled the roost at the polling booths. Such was the anger that several retired officials, including those from the security establishment itself, were seen using disparaging nomenclature for the Army Chief (my favourite being “Bawla” a play on his surname Bajwa), something that would have been unheard of just a decade ago.

PTI, for all its faults, stuck to its narrative and refused to play on the track laid by General Bajwa and the political old guards. It refused to get provoked and didn’t resort to violence that the establishment was goading it to do. On the issue of messaging, it performed remarkably. Imran and his acolytes kept referring to the current dispensation as “Imported Government,” thereby suggesting that it was foisted on the command of Americans who were unhappy with the strategic independence that Pakistan was trying to achieve under Imran. This messaging worked.

Demographically also, PTI reaped the dividends. Before these bypolls, youth participation in voting was beyond dismal. As low as 24 per cent of youths had voted in the last general elections. The majority treated it as a day of frolic and soiree. This time around, cadres were pressed to bring the youths to polling booths and that did wonder. These bypolls saw the highest ever polling in any bypolls in the electoral history of Pakistan.

What was surprising, however, was the relative absence of rigging on the day of the polls. Pakistani analysts are divided on this.

Those close to, or tilt towards, PTI maintain that the deep state tried to rig the voting but it was mitigated by the massive pro-PTI participation of voters. Others, seen close to the ruling dispensation, maintain that it was completely free and no attempts to rig were made.

Observers believe that the establishment did try to rig it early on by fudging electoral rolls and stopping some pro-PTI demographics from voting but gave up on the day of the actual polling in the face of the massive outpouring of support in favour of PTI. That the Pakistani deep state threw in the towel and tried to cut its losses is a once-in-a-generation event.

Will the Pakistanis build over this is however still up in the air. Does it mean Pakistani civilians have had enough of deep state meddling? Not really. Most observers believe that the civilian population don’t mind meddling till it dovetails with their own political aspirations. Imran Khan has been an Establishment man. However, he is no dummy either. It is this inability of the establishment to control him that brought the situation to a boil in April leading to the post-modern coup. Till the time both were on the same page, the same aspirational class was targeting its rancour towards the establishment.

So where does it leave the deep state? Some soul-searching must be going on. There will be internal pressures on Bajwa to bow out now. He is an obstinate man and it is said he doesn’t know where to stop. This will make the situation explosive.

As far as Khan is concerned, he knows that the vast majority of the establishment still supports him. Rather than going after them, he will lend an olive branch. It will be accepted. An interim government, a compromise of sorts, is on the horizon. It will also help Khan prepare for the general elections where he can reap a greater haul of seats thereby not necessitating support from other smaller parties. That dream is now looking like a reality for Khan.

The biggest losers here, besides the deep state, are the Sharifs. After pushing the anti-establishment narrative since 1999, they rode the same bandwagon once the opportunity presented itself. Their credibility however is gone forever. Once that is gone, the baggage of dynastic politics becomes too heavy to carry. PML (N) will have to reinvent itself around able administrators or it will be swept aside in the next general elections.

(The writer is an independent academic and commentator. Views are personal)

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    Published: 23 Jul 2022, 10:03 PM