Suddenly, Imran Khan has become “anti-American”. The former Prime Minister of Pakistan and head of the Pakistan Justice Party (PTI) is holding mass rallies after losing the majority in the national parliament.
In speeches before he was voted out as prime minister, but particularly after the no-confidence vote in the parliament, Khan has accused the United States of hatching a conspiracy to oust him from power. He has started a campaign called “real independence”. His supporters are running a “no to imported government” campaign, which has been trending on Twitter since April 3, when he lost power.
Since his election as Prime Minister in August, 2018, Khan has been friendly with the US and its financial institutions. However, he was unhappy that President Joe Biden never made a direct telephone call to him. He had a very cordial meeting with former President Donald Trump, in September, 2019. On arriving back in Pakistan after meeting Trump, Khan declared the meeting as like “winning the second World Cup for Pakistan" — Pakistan won a one-day cricket World Cup under his captaincy in 1992. He was also jubilant when Pakistan got a US$6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — with harsh conditions attached — just after he took power in 2018.
All that changed once a vote of no confidence against him was tabled at the National Assembly on March 8. He initially challenged his opponents to bring together the 172 votes needed for a change of government at the Assembly. However, he did not realise that more than 30 of his PTI parliamentarians had already defected.
These defectors were hiding at a location provided by the provincial government in Sindh, which is not ruled by the PTI, but by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto. (Bhutto was assassinated by religious fanatics in December, 2007. Her son Bilalwal and her husband Asif Zardari now lead the PPP.)
Once Khan got wind of the defections, he alleged that millions of rupees were paid to buy the PTI defectors’ political loyalties. He accused the United Opposition, which brought together arch rivals, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the PPP, of removing him from power through bribes and conspiracies.
The PTI government became very unpopular because of its bad governance and the unheard-of levels of inflation due to implementation of the IMF-mandated conditions. This was the real reason for the defection of PTI parliamentarians, who were of the view — and rightly so — that the PTI had lost popularity and therefore they would not win the upcoming elections as PTI candidates. The next general elections are due in 2023.
In the meantime, Khan’s coalition government also showed cracks in its ranks and several important allies publicly broke with the ruling coalition. As a result, he lost the parliamentary majority.
In absolute desperation, Khan announced that his PTI would hold a historic sit-in against these political moves, and gave a religious touch to his rhetoric. At that juncture, he was using threats to disqualify the parliamentarians who had defected from him/PTI.
Khan’s so-called “million march” on March 27, was attended by less than 20,000 people. In front of the federal parliament he waved a letter that he claimed was a “message of threat” passed on by a foreign power. He claimed he got this letter on March 7, the day before the tabling of the motion of no confidence.
The PTI Speaker of the National Assembly refused to hold a vote on the no confidence motion, in violation of the Constitution. The United Opposition went to the Supreme Court against this unconstitutional act by the PTI government. The Court had rescued the PTI government several times prior to this hearing. The top judges are considered to be pro-PTI. However, after four days of hearings, the Court ruled against the PTI and ordered the Speaker to call a National Assembly session and hold the no confidence vote on April 3.
Compared to previous political crises, the military establishment remained “neutral”. No parliamentarians received telephone calls from “unknown” persons, as has been the case in the past.
The military establishment that had helped Khan to come to power in 2018 was not happy for several reasons. Khan wanted to replace the sitting Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, with his own favourite — General Faiz Hameed.
The military establishment was also in trouble because the army was being blamed for the PTI’s bad governance, given the military establishment rigged the previous elections to bring Khan to power.
This apparent "neutrality" was, in fact, a signal to PTI allies and defectors to help the United Opposition in ousting Khan. However, Khan kept addressing the nation on television on an almost daily basis before he was removed, and in one of his final speeches, he named — apparently as a Freudian slip of the tongue — the US as the conspirator.
After the high-pitch theatrics, the vote of no confidence was held and Khan was voted out. This was only possible through the military’s covert intervention.
Since he lost power, Khan’s rhetoric against the US has intensified. However, Khan’s anti-American stand cannot be called anti-imperialism. It is an opportunist act to deceive people. It is an act of sheer desperation. It is an act of anti-imperialism of the fools. It is to find an excuse for generating public support. It is an exploitation of anti-imperialist feeling of the people of Pakistan.
Khan ruled Pakistan for three and half years, accepting all the harsh conditions of the IMF — raising the price of electricity, gas and petroleum products, along with kitchen supplies. He never raised wages in line with the price hikes.
He is a committed neo-liberal, staunchly anti-left, who tried to do away with the pension system. He introduced a “health card” that allowed private hospitals to treat patients at public expense. This policy was aimed at pleasing the private hospital mafia. Instead of building new public hospitals and medical colleges, he tried to privatise the health sector. Most of the sugar mill owners were from his party, and the sugar price went up from Rs55 a kilogram to Rs110 a kilo in three years.
In the realm of culture, Khan tried to “Islamise” every aspect of state and society. For instance, he introduced a “single national curriculum” to further introduce religion into education. In at least one province — the Punjab — PhD scholars in sciences must now study the Quran. School children are supposed to recite the Quran daily. He even tried to employ 70,000 religious teachers into the school system, instead of improving the current education staff.
Khan is trying to attract conservative votes by being “anti-American”. “Death to America” is a popular slogan of the extreme religious fanatics, including the Taliban and al-Qaida. There is a great difference between “anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism”.
We, as the left, are anti-imperialists and not anti-Americans. Anti-imperialism means opposing colonialism, imperial hegemony, and defending the right of self-determination. Progressive anti-imperialism means opposing all imperialist states, not siding with some of them against the other. Khan says that because he went to Russia and supported President Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine war, the US wanted him out of power. For him, it is ok to side with Russia — a thoroughly imperialist state — as opposed to the US.
To quote leftwing activist Farooq Sulehria: “Anti-imperialism is freedom, for all oppressed, from all oppression.
“In contrast, an Osama bin Laden, or Ayatollah Khomeini for that matter, offers an anti-imperialism that does not tolerate these values. Theirs is an anti-imperialism that chokes minorities and strangles small nationalities.
“Anti-imperialism represents liberation. One cannot be a liberator and an oppressor at the same time. The anti-imperialism that upholds Osama as its poster boy does not solve this contradiction. We have seen this anti-imperialism in action in Pakistan's neighbourhood, exemplified by Iran, or Afghanistan under the Taliban, where it was reduced to [the] burqa and [the] massacre of minorities.”
Khan’s “anti-imperialism of an opportunist” is the latest variety on display. His “anti-imperialism” is based on repression of women, religious minorities, trade unions, peasant organisations and all political parties. He labels all opponents as traitors.
Khan called Bin Laden a “martyr” in August, 2020, while he was prime minister. His ministers called this a slip of the tongue. But, on April 13, while Khan was speaking at a mass rally in Peshawar, one of his charges against the US was that they killed Bin Laden in Pakistan.
We never sided with religious fanatics when they were fighting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or US forces in Afghanistan, as they were not anti-imperialists. Khan is a softer version of the extreme religious fanatics. Being “anti-American” implies more votes from the extreme right. This is sheer opportunism and not anti-imperialism.
Internationally, an impression is being given that Khan has been overthrown because he was anti-American. Far from it, this was an afterthought to build a political narrative that could help find some support among ordinary people. We must not be fooled by Khan’s empty anti-imperialist demagogy.
[Farooq Tariq is a leader of the Haqooq Khalq Party in Pakistan.]