If you go by appearances only, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif certainly wants to furnish some dignity and relevance to the National Assembly. At the outset of its first sitting Monday evening, he asked for the floor to deliver a speech to seek consensus before moving ahead to deal with an extremely complicated issue.

Since removed from the Prime Minister’s Office in the late night of April 9, 2022, through an appropriately pushed and constitutionally dealt with motion of no-confidence, Imran Khan had instantly switched to fight-back mode. Holding a series of rallies, almost in each major town of Pakistan, he continues recharging his base. Like the rest of populist leaders in the “post-truth world,” he also has developed an unmatchable mastery over the skill of igniting hate and anger with manipulative use of multiple social media platforms.

To his diehard supporters, he surely has succeeded in selling the story that Washington felt offended with his nationalist zeal. After failing to tame him, it eventually hatched a conspiracy for his removal. The idea of using the weapon of no confidence was originally conceived by the US administration. Thanks to its historic and massive influence in Pakistan, our “old and rotten” politicians jovially opted to act like the slavish puppets.

 

After successfully venting the story of “American conspiracy” against him, Imran Khan increasingly began promoting the narrative that politicians were not alone when it came to serving foreign forces. A cabal of the senior most persons from the superior judiciary, and even the military, also joined the get-Imran-game. Now he vows to get even with all of them.

 

Our politicians are obsessively addicted to projecting each other as sold-out “traitors.” Judiciary and the Army were seldom projected as their “collaborators,” though. Such allegations only found takers if a coup d’état were staged against a civilian government, as it had happened against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977. The regime led by General Musharraf also endured such accusations after joining the US-led war in Afghanistan two decades ago.

 

Things should have turned “normal” after the election in 2008. But then a Chief Justice who considered himself a Messiah was leading our judiciary. Vigorously using the suo motu powers, he unleashed the mission of cleansing our politics with obsessive zeal. After his retirement another Chief Justice -Saqib Nisar- took the same route. That forced many Pakistanis to instinctively begin suspecting that powerful elements, entrenched in our ‘deep state’, were the ultimate supporters and promoters of the judicial overreach for keeping the politicians ‘in check.’

 

Ironically, Imran Khan was the one and only beneficiary of an otherwise stifling judicial overreach. This cricketer-turned-politician with charismatic pull was also declared as the sole “SADIQ and AMIN’’ (truthful and trustworthy) among the “rotten lot” of our politicians. The judicial activism, in the end, rather proved one of the key factors that ensured his reaching the Prime Minister’s Office in August 2018.

 

After his removal, though, Imran Khan had quickly turned guns against the same judiciary. After pushing it to a defensive corner, he quickly switched to throwing mud at the military elite. After subtly blaming them with nuanced words and terms, he soon reached a line considered “RED” in our political milieu. Addressing a passion-driven rally in Abbottabad Sunday, he was almost explicit to finally hold the incumbent Army Chief as if mainly responsible for his fall.

 

Although a politician, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif couldn’t keep himself indifferent to vicious bashing of the military command. Being the “Chief Executive” he rather feels forced to protect the same and find means to at least reigning in Imran Khan, if not punishing him for unleashing a barrage of deriding comments against the military command.

 

But heading a “unity” or “the coalition” government of so many parties, Shehbaz Sharif doesn’t relish a free and powerful hand. Pakistan Peoples’ Party is the second largest party of the coalition government he heads. And this party is too sensitive when it comes to protecting its reputation for being a defender of the right to freely express opinions. Ministers from the smaller parties like the MQM and Balochistan National Party also have accumulated grievances against the military elite. In short, Shehbaz Sharif has an extremely limited room to maneuver.

 

Even if the government is able to devise a consensual plan to rein or punish Imran Khan, its execution could lead to unimagined blowback. Imran Khan, no doubt, is riding a powerful populist wave since resurrected as the sole daring person defying and questioning the powerful institutions of our overdeveloped state.

 

The government’s dilemma appears almost paralyzing, if you also consider the reality that significant sections of the same institutions still hold sympathy for Imran Khan. He at least is considered a lesser and more acceptable alternative to “dynastic and electable” kind of politicians, mostly perceived as “corrupt to the core” by a significant number of Pakistanis, especially the urban middle classes and the youth.

 

A trigger-happy and punitive looking action against Imran Khan has strong possibilities of being perceived as “vindictive and spiteful.” That could furnish the status of a ‘victim’ for the former prime minister. Yet the government led by Shehbaz Sharif can’t afford to look as if staying ‘indifferent’ when the military command is under rapid and nonstop attacks by Imran Khan.

 

In the name of protecting the sanctity of the “unity of command” and preventing ‘in-house’ confusion and chaos regarding the same, ‘the institution’ can also feel provoked to act on its own, if politicians in the government appeared indifferent or helpless on the said front.

 

Shehbaz Sharif’s speech at the outset of the National Assembly sitting was clearly aimed at buying time and soothing the hurt hearts among the military elite by showing empathy and promising “appropriate action.” After finishing the speech, he also requested Khawaja Asif, the minister of defence, by sending a written note, to deliver a reassuring speech. Mere words wouldn’t help, though. The government certainly needs to quickly match the words by decisive actions. It is yet not possible for me to imagine the possible shape of the action, which has to take place sooner than later.