The deep state or establishment constitutes Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and it has always been in the driving seat since the birth of Pakistan due to numerous reasons. The prominent one was the accepted legitimacy of the Army amongst the masses that always pushed the civilian leadership to the back foot. History has repeated itself time and again from the military coup by Ayyub Khan, Zia to Musharaff when military dictators uprooted the civil-political structure and imposed martial law. Moreover, those martial laws in fact sustained for longer tenures only due to the popularity and trust for the establishment and a subsequent reasonable distrust for the civilian administration due to corruption, red tape, chaos and poor administration. But the latest development in the geopolitics of Pakistan has turned the table and it may change the politics of South Asia forever. Following are a few telling indicators: i) the defensive mode of the establishment is clearly evident from the latest developments such as the Joint briefing by DG-ISI (Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence) and ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) ii) the performance by Imran Khan and his party in by-elections in Punjab and other provinces too iii) the Election Commission ruling against Imran Khan and subsequently leading to his cancellation of candidature. The above-mentioned are some of the formidable developments that show that Imran Khan has been successfully mobilizing mass support in his favour, which is not acceptable to the ruling regime and the establishment as well.
Locating the differentiating elements
It is the same establishment that is criticized for favouring Imran Khan in the last general elections (2018) that later turned against him in such a short span of time. But what differentiates the political dynamics this time are a number of factors that are tilting the narrative in Imran Khan’s favour. This has compelled the deep state to feel the heat and cause damage to the military hold over the civilian government.
First and foremost, the ongoing economic crisis that is compelling the government to heavy taxation resulted to further inflation. This situation has been cunningly utilized by the Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf with a blend of a scorching social media campaign against the ongoing regime. Imran khan and his supporters are aggressively turning out against the Army and ISI which is damaging their public perception, accumulated through their so-called sacrifice and dedication to the nation. This fact can also be attested by the historical study of the economic situation of Pakistan just prior to the four martial laws, the only factor that has been taken care of before imposing the coup is the economic stability that is missing out this time.
Secondly, the charismatic leadership of Imran Khan, himself is also a dominant factor that cannot be denied. The long socio-political process of Pakistan has given democratic space to a few leaders such as Md. Ali Jinnah, Zulfiqar Bhutto but in modern days, Imran has used social media and some media houses as a tool of information warfare to enhance his outreach and henceforth establish his narrative out and clear among the popular discourse. This tool was not that prevalent with utmost outreach in earlier times which clearly demarcates the differentiating element. Despite severe criticism from opponents, Imran and his party had already proclaimed themselves as honest and staunch Islamic patriots of ‘Naya Pakistan’ amongst the masses which could not help out the regime to defame or sabotage their public image. This mass support for Imran and his party cannot be acclaimed as the only bluff or disorientation as several power blocs of Army and Ex-military personnel have also supported his narrative and he has accurately fused the mistrust and corrupt image of the ruling regime with the agenda of foreign involvement, particularly the US, in the domestic politics of Pakistan. Subsequently, he blamed the establishment behind this game plan and that narrative having travelled to the masses has successfully occupied a space in domestic politics, thus aiding his survival.
Thirdly, one of the major tools that the establishment had earlier used to settle the score with the previous civilian leadership is by declaring them as an ‘Indian agent’ but today, this is not really the case because Imran’s government and his bitter relationship with the Indian government is not a hidden story. Rather some back channel engagements could be witnessed during Sharif’s government when a sting operation floated recently in which Maryam Nawaz allegedly stated some business deals with India for his family members and Shahbaz Sharif could be heard diluting the matter. It is quite evident to the people of Pakistan that the establishment is behind this ruling dispensation as it is the only umbrella of the establishment that can keep intact all major coalition partners together.
Fourth is the constant struggle and bargain for power, evident after the dismissal of Imran’s government. Imran is not ready to give a perception to the public that his party is willing to any kind of negotiation because he rightly knows that it will only dilute his stature in a long battle of perception and whosoever wins this battle of dominance will prevail over the other. But the thing that differentiates Imran from his predecessors is keeping his resolution intact and changing strategies at each step which is very frustrating and surprising for the ruling regimes. The current developments are playing in favour of Imran Khan such as the Killing of the famous Journalist in Kenya (Arshad Sharif) and subsequent anger and perception building against the culmination of free speech, the deadly attack on Imran khan during the long-awaited march from Lahore to Islamabad in October 2022. Several cases on Imran Khan over the last six months are some of the recent factors that have created a sympathy wave in his favour and this has all been done in the knowledge of the establishment.
These are some of the facets of the story that shows why the establishment is not able to manage Imran unlike his predecessors and this has led to a new evolution in the socio-political sphere of Pakistan that mass support is shifting towards the civilian leadership from the establishment and if new government of PTI comes to power, then it is not going to be easy for the establishment too as Imran will try to consolidate and define a demarcated boundary for the establishment that will surely encroach some of the privileges of the army. But it doesn’t imply that it is easy going for him too as the structural functioning of the establishment is very deep-rooted in Pakistan’s society and the deep state is not an individual rather, it represents an institution that has prevailed through all thick and thin and it will be a humongous challenge to break this institutional solidarity for the democratic socio-political structure to survive and thrive.