Imran’s arrest is all about fear and intimidation
Consider the logic of politics of spectacle. Within hours of former prime minister Imran Khan's arrest at Islamabad High Court on Tuesday, videos showing dozens of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) workers storming the premises of GHQ in Islamabad and Lahore corps commander's residence began making the rounds on social media.
In Karachi, videos of police firing shells at protesters on Sharea Faisal circulated on all media channels. In Multan, protesters blocked Bahawalpur Bypass Chowk and Nawan Shehar and agitated against the police deployed there to arrest the protesters under Section 144.
In Peshawar, protesters clashed with journalists, injuring several. The Swat Motorway toll plaza was set alight. Protesters and residents from these cities complained about tear gas wafting in the air even in places where the protests weren't happening.
If anything, the imposition of Section 144 in all major cities in hopes of maintaining public order almost ensured the virality of these images and videos. In a political culture where corruption alone becomes the raison d'etre for politics, it quickly becomes the method of politics itself – the art of electoral wins and defeat loses meaning. What we are left with is a game of semiotics: empty gestures, institutions without integrity, and players strategising to lose.
There should be no doubt that Imran Khan's arrest had little to do with upholding the constitution and everything to do with fear and intimidation. Former Herald editor Badar Alam said unless all institutions come clean, the cases against Imran Khan will be nothing more than a witch hunt by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) whose role has, since its formation, been exactly this – to hold witch hunts against political rivals.
"Any arrest by NAB is unconstitutional. The brainchild of a military dictator, it exists to allow selective corruption to take place and to target political rivals," he said.
The events of May 9, 2023 will have important repercussions on the direction this country's politics will take. The instability and destabilising impacts of Imran Khan's own politics and political machinery will ensure that the political crisis and PTI's street power pick up momentum in the following weeks. Arresting Imran Khan will lead to no fruitful impact.
In fact, Alam says, it may further steer politics firmly into the realm of spectacles where every move happens on whims and fancy with no institutional separation of power.
Crossing red lines
Earlier, before departing for his hearing in Islamabad, the PTI chief recorded a video of himself reasserting his earlier claims against DG-C Maj Gen Faisal Naseer, whom he has accused of being involved in an assassination attempt against him in Wazirabad.
Earlier at a rally on Saturday, the PTI chairman had again named the senior intelligence officer for planning to assassinate him. "My question is: [Despite being] a country's ex-prime minister – because this man's name has come forward – [why was] I unable to register a first information report (FIR)?" he asked in the video on Tuesday. He went on to say that even when his party was in power in Punjab, they were unable to name the officer in the FIR.
Responding to Khan's claims, on Monday, the military's PR wing stated that Khan's claims against the intelligence officer were "irresponsible and baseless."
There should be no doubt that Imran Khan's arrest had little to do with upholding the constitution and everything to do with fear and intimidation. Former Herald editor Badar Alam said unless all institutions come clean, the cases against Imran Khan will be nothing more than a witch hunt by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) whose role has, since its formation, been exactly this — to hold witch hunts against political rivals.
The statement went on to say that the PTI chairman had levelled baseless charges against the intelligence officer without evidence. "This fabricated and malicious allegation is extremely unfortunate, deplorable and unacceptable," the statement said.
On Tuesday, Khan responded to this statement saying, "ISPR sahib, listen to me carefully. Respect is not [confined] to a single institution; respect should be for every single citizen."
It is possible that the ISPR statement was taken to mean a green signal from the military establishment to go ahead and take punitive measures against Khan.
Professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Muhammad Waseem, said prior to Imran Khan's statements and ISPR's response to it, the establishment had tried to cultivate an image of neutrality. "However, there seems to be a turn of the tides," he said.
Sensing green signals
Ever since Khan's ouster through a no-confidence motion in April 2022, the PTI chairman has tried to sustain his popularity through populist narratives. Prof Waseem, who is currently researching Imran Khan's populist expatriate base, said, "I look at Imran Khan as someone brought from outside the system to put an end to the domination of two parties and dynastic politics… hence the PTI emerged as the King's Party."
His entire branding as a national hero, famed cricketer-turned-philanthropist, ensured his rise to fame, especially among the expatriate classes. A section of the PTI cadre has previously worked with Khan on the Shaukat Khanum Hospital project as well, and most of that cadre is abroad.
Themes of distance nationalism spurred PTI's popularity in a way that the law itself became an institution of politics. "Whether something is constitutional or not, it doesn't matter anymore because the distinction itself has been blurred," he said.
Politics of spectacle
Imran Khan was arrested for the purpose of investigation in the Al Qadir Trust case on orders of NAB chairman. The PTI chairman and his wife were accused of corruption in exchange for land to build a university near Islamabad.
On social media, it is the legality of the arrest and not the case itself – which involves certain real estate tycoons nearly all politicians have been reluctant to name – which has been the subject of debate and discussion.
Under the NAB Ordnance, lawyer Asad Jamal explained, the bureau has powers to arrest an accused for inquiry. This was established in 2002 when Asfandyar Wali had challenged it and the Supreme Court had upheld these powers. Rangers can be called in to act "in aid of" civilian law and order forces under Article 245 of the constitution.
The government will have to provide evidence of having complied with rules of the ordnance and show that they had issued warrants and informed the PTI chairman of the warrant earlier.
The optics of Tuesday's arrest cast a shadow on NAB. Khan was arrested as he was providing his biometric data ahead of another hearing, which did not take place.
The connection of this arrest to the ISPR's statement from a day before, and the presence of Rangers and police prepared to take down protesters with water cannons and tear gas, indicate malicious intent on behalf of the sitting government.
It appears that the current government might seek to remove Imran Khan from the political scene, by either disqualifying him from contesting by ensuring conviction in one of the hundred cases filed against him, or send him and then keep him behind bars.
Badar Alam cautions against such tactics. PTI's protesters have come a long way from where they began 15 years ago. They have faced repression like this before and police action is not enough to take them down. As images of protesters stealing peacocks from the Lahore corps commander's house and setting a portion of the house on fire circulate and take on new meanings for supporters within the country and outside, Alam insists that the only way forward from here is politics.
This article was first published in Dawn, an ANN partner of The Daily Star, on May 10, 2023.
Sarah Eleazar is a journalist and activist, currently based in Lahore.