Political turmoil reaches a crescendo

ISLAMABAD    -    The Corps Command­er’s House in Lahore has long been an inaccessi­ble and highly coveted place for many locals. To a passersby, it inspired both awe and fear. How­ever, on Tuesday, hun­dreds of Imran Khan supporters breached the security barriers and entered the canton­ment, converging on the house. They proceeded to smash windows, and as security officials re­treated, the protesters ransacked the premises as if it were enemy territory. The de­struction was not limited to fur­niture, doors, and windows — many of the protesters seized items for themselves, such as decorative pieces, an expensive golf set, and even cold straw­berries from the kitchen. One man took a peacock, while an­other absconded with a plate of ‘qorma.’

The protesters, who were fu­rious over the arrest of their leader, Imran Khan, believed that their act of ransacking was justified. According to one fe­male protester, everything on the property was purchased with public money, while the peacock enthusiast claimed that the luxurious residence was only possible because of the people’s taxes. These were truly unprecedented scenes, with the protesters setting the property ablaze as the evening shadows lengthened. 

Earlier in the day, hundreds of protesters attempted to breach the gates of the army’s Gener­al Headquarters in Rawalpindi, an act that had only been car­ried out once before by Taliban militants in 2009. However, Im­ran Khan’s arrest has provoked such fury and outrage across the country that military instal­lations, government offices, and other public property have be­come targets of mob violence.

It should not come as a sur­prise, really. After all, Imran Khan had himself warned of such dire consequences. 

The military has released its initial response to the current disorder and violence across the country. It cautioned that any further attacks on mili­tary installations would result in tough action and highlight­ed that the troops’ self-control the previous day was deliber­ate in order to prevent any at­tempts to instigate a civil war. The military condemned ele­ments within Imran Khan’s par­ty who mask their hunger for power as a democratic struggle and reiterated that legal mea­sures would be taken against arsonists and rioters.

The showdown has been go­ing on for a year since Imran Khan’s ouster from power and is now coming to a crescendo. 

Imran Khan has challenged his benefactors in the security es­tablishment and political oppo­nents alike, turning the political game on its head. The elector­al victories in the by-elections last year only added to his ap­peal and popularity. The ruling coalition has fumbled and fal­tered, battered by its handling of the economy and sagging public ratings. Its reluctance to go for early elections has been viewed as a sign of weakness by Khan supporters and has only bolstered their morale. The le­gal drama that has been playing out in the fractured Supreme Court has added to the political turmoil. In such a volatile back­drop, Imran Khan’s sudden ar­rest on corruption charges left his supporters stunned and shocked. 

But it appears that Khan’s party might have overplayed its hand. The images of the attacks on the GHQ, the nerve centre of the country’s military, and the Lahore Corps Commanders House have rankled the rank and file. The stream of leaked audios and social media videos point to an organised and or­chestrated campaign to target state and military institutions. Even though the senior par­ty leadership has distanced it­self from the violence, it cannot wash its hands of the conse­quences. There will be arrests. There will be lengthy legal pro­ceedings. 

But it cannot be denied that the military faces a daunting challenge in restoring its rep­utation and reversing the dam­age done to its traditional mys­tique in the wake of recent events. A significant number of protesters hail from military families and reside in wealthy DHA neighborhoods, and they reject conventional, dynas­tic politics. It will be a diffi­cult task to regain their loyalty and steer them away from the PTI’s narrative. Additionally, it will be equally challenging to counteract the ongoing flow of propaganda and criticism orig­inating from abroad. Did the ar­chitects of ‘Project Imran’ ever anticipate retired majors con­tinuously judging and criticiz­ing high-ranking army gener­als, or that dissidents would publicly reveal the addresses of intelligence officials’ residenc­es and safe houses in Islam­abad, or incite attacks on mili­tary residential compounds in Chaklala? The current climate is far from normal when ru­mors of a rift among top mili­tary brass or discussions of a “Colonel’s Coup” are casually thrown around.

The political situation in the country has reached unchart­ed territory, with the ruling co­alition banking on the disqual­ification of Imran Khan from future elections. However, any escalation in violence or pro­longed unrest on the streets could result in unforeseen con­sequences. If Imran Khan is in­carcerated for an extended period, it may increase his pop­ularity and sway public opinion further in his favor. The mili­tary leadership will find it chal­lenging to maintain its apo­litical stance while avoiding having its reputation further hollowed out. For a country al­ready struggling with deep­ening economic turmoil and unprecedented inflation, addi­tional political unrest will only exacerbate the decline.