A moment of reckoning for PTI

Imran Khan’s party jolted by defections

Back-to-back defections have rocked Imran Khan’s political party. One of the most significant departures came from Shireen Mazari, the former human rights minister in Imran’s cabinet. Mazari, 71, not only announced her resignation from the party but also her retirement from politics altogether. She explained that she wanted to dedicate more time to her children, especially following the recent passing of her husband, as well as attend to her elderly mother. Many people, though, believed that she was being coerced into leaving politics. After receiving bail from the courts, Mazari experienced a string of re-arrests within weeks. The tactic, described by PTI as a mockery of the law, finally proved to be her undoing.

The plight of Ms. Mazari also garnered sympathy from many in the media. Witnessing Mazari’s downfall was described as a sombre sight by some.

Mazari is a controversial figure known for her combative nature and tendency to promote and relish conspiracy theories. Her tweets have often been scrutinised for disseminating disinformation, propaganda, and unfounded allegations. Imran’s party provided a suitable platform for her due to these traits.

Following Imran’s removal from power last year, Mazari became even more vocal in her criticisms of the United States and the Pakistani military, accusing both of conspiring to remove Imran from office. As a former teacher in the Defence and Strategic Studies Department (DSS) at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, she has instructed numerous military officers. In recent months, she used DSS terminology to support Imran’s confrontation with the establishment, claiming that the balance of power had shifted away from them.

Her announcement to quit politics can be seen as a tactical retreat. At her age, jail time can be extremely uncomfortable.

Another notable defection was by Fayazul Hassan Chohan, a former Punjab provincial information minister. Crude and crass, Chohan was an embarrassment when in office, and even more so when out of government. His politics are defined by myopia, xenophobia, and fanaticism. He accused Imran of giving him short shrift and criticised the policy of taking on the military establishment. He is one of those politicians who has made their career riding on the back of the establishment. In 2020, I had the misfortune of meeting him in Lahore. At that time, I had assumed the role of Editor at The Nation, while Chohan held the position of provincial information minister. During the meeting, he displayed arrogance and an overbearing attitude. His tone was impolite, and his behaviour was offensive. Shortly thereafter, he was sacked from the ministry for making inappropriate comments about religious minorities. He also gained notoriety after his videos with controversial TikTok stars surfaced. His defection is not really a surprise, as he found himself sidelined in the party long ago.

But the steady drip of defections over the past week has dented the morale of Imran’s party. These can have a significant impact on the ‘electables’ (politicians from establishment political families) in Punjab, who are known to sway whichever way the wind is blowing. Imran and his party members accused the military establishment of forcing these defections, ‘forced divorces’ in Imran’s words.

However, many people do not miss the irony. Back in 2017-18, the establishment of that time undertook a similar campaign aimed at fracturing and subduing Nawaz Sharif’s party. Despite facing lengthy jail sentences, the senior leaders of Sharif’s party displayed more resilience as they remained steadfast. In contrast, the PTI (Imran Khan’s party) is rapidly falling apart. Fawad Chaudhry, a typically astute politician known for his sharp wit, awkwardly attempted to evade arrest. Video footage of him, visibly exhausted and out of breath as he ran away from police to the safety of a court, quickly spread across the internet.

More defections are expected in the coming days as pressure mounts on the remaining party members.

The speed with which the party is falling into disarray has shocked and disappointed its supporters, many of whom ignored the state’s ham-handed approach in 2017/18. They cheered and rejoiced then, when Imran’s opponents were being hounded and jailed. Today, the shoe is on the other foot.

Pakistan’s democracy follows a similar tableau year after year: the script remains the same but the cast of characters keeps changing.

The events of May 9, when Imran Khan’s crude arrest by paramilitary troops triggered violent protests and assaults on military installations, have now led to a significant shift in political momentum against the PTI. Looking back, the party made a misjudgement by assuming that the violence would compel the military to engage in negotiations.

Additionally, the PTI’s narrative is influenced by certain sensationalist YouTubers and journalists who exhibit greater loyalty than necessary. In their imaginative realm, fiction seamlessly fits into convenient conspiracy theories, which they constantly modify and revise with each passing day.

Some other self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” also experienced a harsh dose of reality. Khadija Shah, a businessperson and the granddaughter of a former army chief, finally surrendered to the authorities after evading capture for several days.

Khadija Shah and her sibling exhibit fervent support for the PTI, and she is accused of inciting violence outside the Lahore Corps Commander House on May 9. Ms. Shah denies she instigated people to violence or attacks on the military installations. Prior to her arrest, her father, Salman Shah, a prominent economist, her husband from an influential business family, and her brother were briefly detained by the police. Given their affiliation with the elite of Lahore, many believed that individuals like Ms. Shah would never face arrest. Numerous influential figures also advocated on her behalf and attempted to persuade the military high command against her arrest.

However, it appears that the top command has chosen to treat Ms. Shah’s case as a litmus test, using its symbolism to ensure compliance from others within the ranks. If someone of her stature, the granddaughter of a former army chief, and her family can be apprehended in such a manner, others have little chance of evading consequences for their attacks on the military.

Salman Masood

The writer is Editor, The Nation. He can be reached at salman@nation.com.pk and tweets @salmanmasood.

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