New Delhi: Imran Khan's anti-army narrative has become his albatross. And his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party is disintegrating with the establishment, a euphemism for the powerful Army leadership, in overdrive to destroy the former prime minister's support base ahead of polls.
The resignations--forced or otherwise-- of his hawkish confidantes like Shireen Mazari and Fawad Chaudhry have kindled the debate on the Minus Imran formula, Delhi-based senior journalist and commentator, Malladi Rama Rao writes. The Shehbaz Sharif government and the Army have mounted an orchestrated campaign to tarnish the image of Imran Khan.
The result of this came out in the form of a flood of allegations of serious financial improprieties by him and also morally unacceptable habits in the Islamic nation. The Federal Health Minister has gone to the town accusing Imran Khan of consuming alcohol and drugs and said as a result of this habit he seems to have lost his 'mental balance'.
He, however, continues to put on a brave face. He has slapped a defamation case against the Health Minister. And intensified his battle against the Army and the Nawaz-Zardari clique. But luck appears to be deserting him, Rao writes.
In a way, Imran Khan has to blame himself for the turn of events. The Army had propelled him to political eminence but he tried to become their nemesis. He has alleged that some top Generals want him assassinated, but has tweaked his strategy of squarely blaming the Army for his ouster through a no-confidence vote in parliament in April 2022. His 'illegal' arrest was set aside by the higher judiciary but that does not preclude another chance of sending him to prison--this time for a period long enough to exclude his participation in the election process whenever it begins.
As the sedate Karachi daily, Dawn, observed editorially, Imran finds himself 'losing a ruthless, one-sided war of attrition'. This is a familiar story for politicians of all hues in Pakistan ever since the country was carved out of British India in 1947 as a home for the Muslims. No political party or leader can afford to cross the red line and take on the country's all-powerful establishment.
Ironically, Imran Khan is desperate to receive US support in his struggle against the powers that be at home. For weeks he went around accusing the US of hatching a conspiracy to throw him out of power because of his 'independent' policies and clubbed the US with India as countries wanting destruction of the Islamic nation.
According to Malladi Rama Rao, the U-turn makes him look weak and vulnerable too. He has hired an expensive lobbyist in the US to get a 'good word' from influential American lawmakers.
The Biden administration is in a fix. It can openly support Imran only if it wants a sudden setback to its efforts to renew ties with Islamabad- Rawalpindi. But Washington cannot come to the rescue of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government either as it handles the maelstrom created by Imran Khan's populist politics backed by a majority of the population.
The rich 'brotherly' friends in the Muslim world also face a dilemma. They cannot put all their eggs in one basket. Because all the combatants in Pakistan--the government, the Army, the judiciary-- are fellow Muslims.
'All-weather friend' China is also in a fix. It stands the risk of alienating a large section of Pakistanis if it sides with the ruling coalition, which has become quite unpopular.
As it is, Pakistan has already created some problems by failing to curb anger towards China in the restive Balochistan province where many feel that the projects being executed under the multi-billion CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) are not going to help them.
On his part, Imran Khan is aware that he may be unable to participate in the elections. Mass desertions and incarceration of PTI leaders and workers will continue along with the trial of his party workers in military courts. Yet, he believes that his anti-American rhetoric coupled with a not-so-oblique praise of Islamic extremism will bail him out in any election. His calculations may be misplaced.
First of all, the possibility of national polls taking place in October does not look certain, given the utterly chaotic conditions in a deeply divided and nearly bankrupt Pakistan.
A lot can change if the polls are delayed as is likely.
To believe that Pakistan has institutions that can override the 'establishment', and combinations of the civilian rulers and the Army, to order elections when they are due, is no more than wishful thinking.
Even if polls are held before the end of the year there is no guarantee that Imran Khan will win a massive mandate that he hopes for.
The 'third umpire', supposedly 'neutral', is clearly poised to thwart Khan's dreams of returning to power.
Because, the Army has suffered major blows to its popularity and even its credibility because of Khan's anti-army narratives, according to Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, Journalist Rao opines.
A wounded tiger is determined to settle scores with Imran.
Realpolitik has already made Imran Khan climb down from his earlier position of no talks with the government to urgent calls for starting a dialogue. He received a snub from Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
His tenure as prime minister exposed him as a poor administrator who pushed the country towards financial bankruptcy. He was selective in weeding out corruption as well. He could barely hide his contempt for democratic practices as he gunned for his political opponents with as much zeal as the present ruling dispensation shows towards him. The message is clear, writes Rao.
Despite his popularity among the masses, Imran Khan is running out of friends, who can help him save his PTI from disintegration, and also win his battle against the Army.
The writer, Malladi Rama Rao is a Delhi-based senior journalist and commentator.