Why army backs Imran Khan and dumps Sharif

Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Imran Khan (file photo)

Imran Khan, seen as a philanderer, seemed an unlikely choice for the hot seat. But surprisingly, the cricketer-turned-playboy-turned-Mullah is said to have emerged as Pakistani army’s new poster boy

Such was the anger against General Ziaul-Haq in Pakistan’s Punjab province for hanging Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on rather frivolous grounds, that the day Indira Gandhi was re-elected Prime Minister of India in 1980, Lahore’s largest circulated Urdu daily Nawai Waqt reported that people distributed sweets on the streets of Pakistan. This was because Mrs Gandhi, unlike the outgoing PM Morarji Desai and the outgoing MEA Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had not remained silent but had condemned Bhutto’s judicial murder.

Nawai Waqt reported that people in Lahore celebrated Mrs Gandhi’s victory in the hope that she would send in Indian troops and send General Zia packing. A copy of that paper might still be lying in Teen Murti Library in Delhi.

Nawaz Sharif was then a young and rich businessman with a law degree from Lahore. While General Zia’s main mission was to establish the supremacy of the Army-Mullah combine, his dilemma was that those with long flowing beards did not inspire much confidence among people. He therefore needed a person with a pleasing face but whose worldview did not clash with his. That’s when he spotted Nawaz Sharif, patronised him and soon enough Nawaz Sharif was heading the largest pro-Zia party (PML) in Punjab.

When Zia was killed in a plane explosion over Islamabad in October 1988, the military regime bet upon Mian Sahib and he was catapulted to power in 1990 after the duly elected government of Benazir Bhutto was dismissed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

In the 1973 constitution, Zia-ul-Haq had given himself as President unbridled powers to dismiss any elected government, a provision which his successor Ghulam Ishaq used fully. And when Nawaz Sharif fell out with him, Ishaq lost no time in getting rid of him.

In the general elections of 2013, Nawaz’ Muslim League won a comfortable majority but this time he appeared a changed man. He did not use anti-India rhetoric during his campaign. He had been credited with patronising and arming Jaish-e-Mohamamd of Masood Azhar, Lashkar-e -Taiba of Hafiz Saeed and Lashakr-e- Jhangvi, all sworn enemies of not just India but of all minorities in Pakistan

Benazir returned to power in the next election in 1993 but was again dismissed by President Farooq Leghari. In 1997 Nawaz led the IJI coalition back to power and this time he endeared himself to the hawks by testing nuclear bombs in retaliation to India’s nuclear adventure of 1998.

He, however, extended a hand of friendship towards India. The then Prime Minister Vajpayee took the offer and led a high profile Indian delegation to Lahore by bus and was warmly greeted in Pakistan. This did not go down well with the Army and the then army chief Pervez Musharraf cheekily sent his men across the Line of Control in Kargil, by keeping Nawaz Sharif in the dark, leaving him to defend himself in international fora.

That’s when the tussle between Nawaz Sharif and Army-Jihadi combine started. Nawaz Sharif tried to get rid of Musharraf but Musharraf and his men deposed him in a bloodless coup. While Bhutto had to be hanged because the Mullahs and the Military top brass feared his return, Nawaz then enjoyed the support of the Mullahs. The patron of the Islamists in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, intervened and the Sharif family was exiled to Jeddah, where they remained till 2007.

In 2007, United States of America pressurised Musharraf to allow Benazir Bhutto to participate in the general elections scheduled for 2008. But the Military-Jihadi Mullahs refused to accept her, and she was soon assassinated. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia interceded to ensure Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan and contest in the elections, much against Musharraf’s wishes. However, Musharraf could obviously not displease the Saudi monarchs and had to relent.

Benazir died but her party won. Her husband Asif Ali Zardari became the President. But this time Nawaz Sharif did nothing to destabilise the duly elected government and let Zardari complete his full term even though the apex court of Pakistan tried its best to jail Zardari on corruption cases.

In the general elections of 2013, Nawaz’ Muslim League won a comfortable majority but this time he appeared a changed man. He did not use anti-India rhetoric during his campaign. He had been credited with patronising and arming Jaish-e-Mohamamd of Masood Azhar, Lashkar-e -Taiba of Hafiz Saeed and Lashakr-e- Jhangvi, all sworn enemies of not just India but of all minorities in Pakistan.

But now this same person was releasing funds for the restoration of temples, attending Holi celebrations in Karachi and welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi home. He had also tried hard to get former Indian PM Manmohan Singh visit his village of birth Gah in Pakistan.

But he displeased Saudi Arabia by refusing to send his troops to fight in Yemen. The Military-Mullah combine were already baying to see his back. And the Panama Papers provided them and Pakistan’s judiciary the pretext to put away Nawaz Sharif for good.

Somewhat surprisingly, cricketer-turned-playboy-turned-Mullah Imran Khan is said to have emerged as their new poster boy. It is interesting to note that the name of the former cricketer’s party also bears an uncanny resemblance to another party from the past, Tehreek-e-Istaqlal (TI) of Air Marshal Asghar Khan. Imran Khan has named his party Tehreek-e-Insaf (TI).

Asghar Khan was never taken seriously in Pakistan’s political circles and Imran Khan, seen as a philanderer, seems an unlikely choice for the hot seat. But if gossip coming across the border is any indication, he is said to be the chosen one this time.

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