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Imran Khan – Hero Turned Rogue: The Unfortunate Fate of Pakistani Prime Ministers

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Deep Dive Article

By Nokhaiz Ashfaq

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Imran Khan is a man of many talents. Once a cricketer, then philanthropist, then prime minister, Khan is currently fighting off at least 85 cases of corruption and terrorism in the courts. Although once deemed untouchable, it now seems the whole weight of the military establishment, coupled with an energized, politically charged opposition, is hell-bent on silencing Khan. This time they hope to do it for good. The establishment does not want any loose ends, especially not one with the popularity and influence of the ex-PM. The last two weeks were nothing new for the people of Pakistan. What is new is the force the government is willing to come down with to curb the political power of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party (PTI).

If you look at the socio-political history of Pakistan, political violence preceding the arrest of a head of a political party or the head of a state is nothing new. This time around, Khan’s fight against the status quo has morphed into a one-versus-all, once and for all movement.

State v. PTI

For nearly 2 days, state police, in an attempt to arrest the premier of the PTI from his house, clashed with rioters in Zaman Park on 16th and 17th March. In an unusual development, the Rangers, a paramilitary security force, were forced to retreat from around the area upon facing fierce resistance from PTI loyalists. The deployment of such a force against agitated crowds could have been a disaster for more than one reason, yet by looking at their track record one would not associate sensible, risk-averse moves with Pakistan’s eminent military establishment.

Tear gas was used, water cannons deployed and rubber bullets fired straight at the unarmed protestors. It does not make a positive case for Shehbaz Sharif and his government. According to PBS, 61 of Khan’s supporters were arrested on 18th March and many were left injured. Throughout Pakistan’s recent political history, when politicians fall out of favour with the army, state security forces arrest them amidst a few local skirmishes with loyal supporters, but opposition widespread enough that could make state forces backtrack fails to materialize. Until now. Yet in many ways, this retreat by the state is more than just tactical. For the first time, many of Khan’s supporters are feeling that their actions could be something more than just a protest against an arrest; they could be a stand against the military establishment.

History repeats itself

Pakistan’s government, a coalition of 14 squabbling parties, was foolhardy to take on the country’s most popular party and leader by force, which arguably runs contrary to their own supposed principles of open political dialogue. On the contrary, ministers argue they have every right to use force to arrest Imran Khan on the court’s orders. Khan has been issued numerous summons to court in cities all across the country but has refused to attend, claiming the threat to his life is so great. Although he traditionally likes to keep his cards close to his chest, he has been particularly loud in expressing the threat that arrest poses to his life. It is hardly the first time an arrest warrant has been issued against a former Prime Minister. Over the past 45 years, Zulfiqar Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif have all been arrested and put in jail. Imran Khan in his quest to cling to power, may have underestimated the lengths the establishment was willing to go to in order to silence him. He must have learnt his lesson by now.

During his long march towards Islamabad in December, an assassin tried and failed to take Khan’s life, merely wounding him. Since then he has been staying at his Lahore residence with his loyalists or as, some may claim, cultists, encamping outside his home


There have been murmurs amongst pundits that martial law could well be imposed, again. The way things are escalating, this seems more likely with each passing day. Unprecedented violence towards the supporters claiming they were ready to “give their life” for their beloved leader and that “Imran Khan is our red line”, was seen on Pakistani news channels’ YouTube accounts. Khan’s unarmed supporters gathered in large numbers surrounding his house in the hope of deterring their leader’s arrest. One must ponder what the end goal of all these arrests is. Delay the elections? Merely eliminate Khan as a political voice? Or actually kill him, as he has claimed himself on a number of occasions.

Especially at a time when the country is struggling to get any economic lifeline from the IMF, the arrest of Imran Khan is unlikely to solve any of the domestic and economic troubles. The coalition government’s rationale to delay elections is more likely based on the rising popularity of Khan at a time of financial turmoil. Holding elections according to the Supreme Court’s orders may well lead to defeat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab; far too great a risk for the government. It is clear the leading decision-makers think otherwise.

Since he was ousted from office in April 2022, Imran Khan is no longer “the favoured one”, as the opposition taunted him throughout his tenure; his speeches now are banned from being shown on television. Khan is hoping his political movement could lead to real civilian supremacy in the country with each of its institutions acting upon the roles given to them by the constitution. Critics are still skeptical of IK’s anti-establishment approach, but even if he decides to go back to being “friends” with the establishment his supports wouldn’t approve of it. He knows the fight is long. He says he might not even live to see it but his supporters must carry on this fight.

Pakistan’s political leadership has a long-standing love-hate relationship with its military establishment. And it has remained so because none of the parties was ever actually serious about the civilian rule. It remains to be seen who the real boss will be. The constitution or the institution? Pakistan has waited 75 years and it might not have it in her to see another 75 years. The fight goes on.


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