The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf

On Thursday, the Pakistan Teheek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief, the recently ousted prime minister, Imran Khan addressed one of the biggest rallies of his career at Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan. At the rally Khan reiterated his claim of a U.S.-led “global conspiracy” having led to his ouster on April 9. A day after the Lahore rally, the National Security Committee (NSC) – the civilian members of which Khan explicitly accuses of being accomplices in the “conspiracy” – said Washington had no involvement in the former premier’s removal.

A week after Khan’s departure from the Prime Minister’s Office, the military had issued a statement rejecting the idea of a foreign plot against him. However, such denials mean little to PTI enthusiasts, who have unleashed their angst against the military leadership, including Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, accusing them of “bowing down” to the Western powers.

The Diplomat spoke with a range of participants at the Lahore rally, with a large chunk of them accusing the military leadership of “making the mistake” of allying with Khan’s opponents.

“Bajwa saheb [the army chief] started speaking America’s language when Imran Khan tried to give Pakistan its first truly independent foreign policy. The military leaders are worried about their dollars again,” said Aun*, a social sciences student at a private university.

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“Imran Khan was right when he used to say that Pakistan Army takes money from America to target our own people. They have done the same by removing the only honest leader this country has had,” remarked Javeria*, a social media executive at a digital marketing company.

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While the PTI faithful have declared war on the army leadership, Khan himself has been more wary, urging his followers not to target the military even while making veiled jibes at the establishment. This might be Khan’s way of not burning all the bridges, and a hat-tip to where the PTI’s journey truly began.

After forming his party 26 years ago, Khan remained a political outsider for 15 years. This period was marked by Khan’s loud condemnation of the army’s abuses, especially under military ruler Pervez Musharraf, after having vocally supported the dictator’s policies in exchange for promises of power.

Those promises eventually began bearing fruit in 2011 when Khan drew over 100,000 people to Minar-e-Pakistan, the site of Thursday’s Lahore rally, and then Karachi where he unveiled his party’s new leadership, comprised of close allies of the opponents that Khan had deemed orchestrators of a corrupt status quo. Such defections of those he had previously deemed benefactors of the “crooked system” would continue, and these figures would form a bulk of Khan’s first cabinet when he eventually rose to power seven years later.

On the part of the military leadership, Khan’s contrived ascent, spearheaded by former spymaster General Shuja Pasha, was designed to create a wildcard in politics that could simultaneously work as a pressure group and a veritable electoral threat. The need for such an entity arose after the military’s fallout with the U.S. leadership in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011, with the army gradually coming to terms with the fact that brazen coups will no longer get the backing of Washington.

Khan’s first major task was the 126-day capital sit-in patched up in 2014 after then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pushed treason charges against Musharraf for violating the constitution. However, after Sharif remained adamant that security and diplomacy – two areas the army has enjoyed unhindered supremacy over – be returned to the civilian sphere, the military leadership figured they needed their bridled horse in the Prime Minister Office. So began the engineering process for the 2018 elections, through rigging the leadup to the polls with “electables” pushed to the PTI and the party’s opponents shackled via a largely subservient judiciary.

That Khan was surrounded by those he had labeled “corrupt,” “turncoats,” or “dacoits” (gang members) soon became a secondary concern for the masses as economic crises were aggravated and the Pakistani rupee retraced new lows. Khan’s chosen financial connoisseurs, those he had sold as a definitive cure to Pakistan’s long-ailing economy, were soon pushed out as all economic matters were handed over to the International Monetary Fund. The finance ministry was run by those very minds Khan held responsible for the country’s abject poverty.

On the diplomatic front, while Khan ramped up anti-U.S. rhetoric in his final days in power, his government had in previous incidents alienated two other critical donors for Pakistan, despite Khan’s dutiful subservience to both. Where Saudi Arabia could tell Khan which Islamic summits to attend, or how to show up amid global questioning over a dissenting journalist’s murder, Islamabad’s vocal snub to Riyadh over Kashmir in 2020 caused the al-Saud family to temporarily pull financial support, which in turn further exacerbated the economic crisis in Pakistan.

Financial repercussions also loomed when China called out the PTI government in early 2020 for stalling projects linked to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) even as Islamabad not only kept mum over Beijing’s suppression of Uyghur Muslims inXinjiang, but also helped Chinese authorities imprison the Uyghurs that had escaped to Pakistan.

Despite his abandonment of Uyghur Muslims, Khan upped the ante on his Islamist rhetoric in other contexts, even if it meant canceling the appointment of a top economist owing to his Ahmadiyya Muslim faith. With crisis upon crisis engulfing the country and his government, Khan instead preferred to pick a fight with France and the West in 2020 over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, acquiescing to the radical Islamist Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and even echoing its threat to export the murderous Islamic blasphemy law. Meanwhile, the blasphemy law continued to take lives in Pakistan, as Islamabad both fanned the flames of local Islamists and facilitated the Taliban takeover in Kabul, which has resulted in a rise in jihadist attacks on both sides of the Af-Pak border in recent months.

To the participants of Thursday’s rally in Lahore, however, none of this happened over the past three-and-a-half years – at least not in the manner in which it is narrated above. Most among the hordes surrounding Minar-e-Pakistan see Imran Khan as a messiah, whose follies either do not exist or can be attributed to someone else, ideally the corrupt system or a foreign plot.

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Many of the women interviewed by The Diplomat either did not see anything wrong with his open sexism or labeled it a minor blot that distracted from the bigger picture. The purists, which most of Khan’s followers tend to be, similarly dismissed his dealing with the “corrupt elite” as a flaw of the system and of parliamentary democracy, which necessitates such moves.

Khan’s support base comes from all the sections of the society that his regime actively suppressed, including women, the Pashtun, the Shia, or even Ahmadis. This paradox reflects in PTI rallies with majoritarian ideologues and the people they actively target standing together, simultaneously pinning their hopes on Imran Khan.

“It is unfortunate that so many uncovered women are dancing here during the holy month of Ramzan, but I know that once Imran Khan has full control over the government he will establish the Medina state that he promised and ban all un-Islamic activities,” remarked a local cleric, Mohammed Ishaq, who along with his companions present at Thursday’s rally, are frequent attendees of TLP gatherings.

Others, even those acknowledging the jihadist threat, when asked about Khan’s eulogy for bin Laden, or longstanding support for the Taliban defended their leader. “One can praise their anti-American resistance while at the same time condemning their other actions,” remarked Javeria Ahmed, a tech professional and blogger.

To many of Khan’s followers, the PTI chief is merely tolerating the other side within the support base, and paying them lip-service, until he can rise to power and establish the ideal model of the state that the two contradicting sides respectively envision. And both agree this is only possible through giving the PTI an overwhelming majority in the upcoming election.

“As long as Imran Khan has to rely on alliances or turncoats, he will unfortunately have to compromise, which hinders the progress towards Naya Pakistan that he has promised,” said Naghmana Shahid, an educator, author, and a PTI worker for the past two decades, while talking to The Diplomat.

Despite the PTI’s unceremonious ouster from government this month, Khan has demanded “immediate elections,” given the evident public tide in the PTI’s favor. Khan believes that he can win a bona fide election – if the military doesn’t aid his opponents just as they aided him in 2018. The PTI’s opponents, those now in government, claim they aren’t being helped by the military establishment.

The military has “just become neutral in recent months. Now that the support for PTI has been retracted, Imran Khan is claiming that we are being supported instead,” said senior Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Chaudhry Manzoor while talking to The Diplomat.

PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry said on national TV that Khan’s government would have still been in power had its relations with the establishment not been strained. The rupture came over the appointment of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief in October, with approval for Bajwa’s pick, Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, delayed for weeks after Khan wanted to exercise his constitutional right to determine the appointment and retain Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed.

The crowds at Khan’s rally since his ouster are fully cognizant of this clash and have in turn unleashed their anger on Bajwa. Critics have long questioned how much impact Khan’s ability to pull crowds has on actual voting patterns. Now many wonder how those numbers will be affected by a blatantly anti-army tilt.

“The PML-N [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] still definitely has the edge in Punjab, which translates into success nationwide. The people are likely to judge Imran Khan for the recent political chaos, his damaging actions against democracy and efforts to weaken institutions,” Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a former secretary at the Ministry of Defense Production, told The Diplomat.

Political scientist and former Punjab Chief Minister Hasan Askari Rizvi believes that while Khan’s chances depend on how far his narrative of victimhood can carry him, he would still need the military leadership on board.

“In Pakistani politics, there are other factors that determine elections more so than the public, including the army and other institutions,” he told The Diplomat. “If the current government improves the economy, Imran Khan is going to be neutralized. If not, they might go Khan’s way.”

Whether or not the military engineers the next polls, should the outcome not come in the PTI’s favor, Khan’s faithful, tens of thousands of whom thronged Minar-e-Pakistan on Thursday, are ready to take on whatever comes in between their leader and the throne. If it means taking on the omnipotent military, they say they are up for it. Despite, or maybe because of, his ouster, the cult of Imran Khan is at an all-time high.

*Some interviewees’ first names only used at their request.