The crisis that culminated in the ouster of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister, on 10 April, was punctuated with numerous references to the game of cricket – familiar across South Asia, but totally arcane to commentators in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Imran Khan, as befits Pakistan’s legendary cricket captain, started it all by saying he was not a quitter and was “going to bat to the last ball.” Not to be outdone, a Pakistani political leader referring to Imran’s attempt to end the game abruptly by dissolving the assembly, said he had “run out of the field after uprooting the wickets.” An Indian writer said he was out “hit wicket” – i.e. defeated through his own folly.
Finally, after the successful vote of no-confidence, everyone agreed that Imran had “returned to the pavilion.” Despite defeat, the former prime minister reminded his audience of his honesty – throughout his long cricketing career, he had never been accused of “match-fixing” – and told his enthusiastic supporters that, going into the vote of no-confidence, he knew that the “match had been fixed” by his enemies.
The references to cricket make one thing clear – on 10 April, Imran Khan joined the long list of Pakistani prime ministers who left office without having completed their five-year term. The only difference is that, while his predecessors left as a result of a military coup or a court order, Imran is the first to go after a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.
Run-up to regime change
The month-long political crisis began on 8 March when the country’s three major opposition parties – the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), headed by Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif; the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto; and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), headed by the firebrand Deobandi cleric, Maulana Fazlur Rehman – submitted a joint motion of no-confidence in the prime minister’s government. The motion accused the government of poor governance, victimisation of the opposition, and failures in economic and foreign policy.
By 3 April, the day of the vote, the opposition was confident of success since Imran had steadily lost his parliamentary majority of 197 seats in the assembly over the previous weeks – through defections by his coalition partners as well as some of his own party members – and stood at a vulnerable 140 against the 172 required to maintain a majority in the 342-member National Assembly. However, as the opposition gathered for the vote, it was in for a surprise. Deputy speaker Qasim Suri, a member of Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party, refused to accept the no-confidence motion on grounds that it merely served the interests of foreign entities.
Imran, in cricketing terms, then bowled a “googly” – he took the unexpected initiative of advising the president to dissolve the House and go in for fresh elections. Emerging from the dissolved House, Imran congratulated the nation for foiling the machinations of “outsiders”, asserting that the “conspiracy” to oust him will fail. He specifically blamed the US for wanting to get rid of him, referring to a State Department official allegedly telling the Pakistani ambassador in Washington that the US wanted a new leadership in Pakistan. Later, he said the conflict in Pakistan was a fight between “good and evil”.
This led to an extraordinary week-long political drama in Pakistan. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the PPP rejected the “foreign conspiracy” claim and referred to the dissolution of the assembly as a “coup”, while Shehbaz Sharif of the PML-N called it “high treason”. The opposition turned to the Supreme Court for the redressal of its grievance. On 7 April, the court declared the dissolution unconstitutional and insisted that there be a vote in the assembly on the no-confidence motion.
The vote took place in the late night/early morning of 9-10 April, with the motion going through with 174 votes. Before the vote, Imran’s supporters had left the assembly, and later resigned from the House.
There are reports that Imran had made some last-minute attempts to prevent the vote from going ahead – including a threat to oust the army chief and replace him with a personal favourite, which was apparently avoided through a late-night call on the embattled prime minister by the Head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Even the Supreme Court remained open all night in case an intervention was required. A poll following the vote showed that 57 percent of Pakistanis were “happy” with the change in government, while 43 percent were “angry” with the outcome.
Out of power, Imran has remained truculent and aggressive. He wondered aloud why the judiciary had opted to keep its doors open through the night. He repeated his allegations of a “foreign conspiracy” and recounted the corruption cases pending against Shehbaz Sharif. Imran Khan has taken credit for shaping an “independent” foreign policy, i.e. one that is equidistant, as between the US on one side and Russia and China on the other, a departure from the country’s generally pro-US approach in the past. He has also framed his domestic political posture on an anti-US platform. This goes down well with large sections of his followers, enabling him to seek popular support by presenting himself as a victim of American interference in Pakistani politics through the co-option of opposition politicians.
More tellingly, he said that, out of government, he would be “more dangerous now”, and called on his supporters to organise mass demonstrations against the “imported government”. He also went back to his popular support base and told his people that “the freedom struggle begins again today against a foreign conspiracy of regime change.”
The Imran-Army divide
That a political crisis was brewing in the country had been apparent for some time. There had been indications over previous months that relations between the prime minister and the army chief, the principal arbiter of politics in the country, were deteriorating. Looking back, we can note several areas of disagreement between Imran and the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
The divide possibly began with public differences over the appointment of the head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In October 2021, Imran took several weeks to approve the army chief nominee, initially indicating he wished to retain his favourite general, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hamid, in the post. Later, realising that Hamid needed to have battlefield experience to be in the running for the post of army chief, Imran in a day approved Hamid’s new appointment as corps commander. But he took a few weeks to approve the army chief’s own extension in service. This will take the latter’s tenure to 29 November this year, Imran’s game-plan being that Faiz Hamid will take over as army chief on that day.
Imran has old ties with General Faiz Hamid. In 2018, Hamid had helped mobilise massive demonstrations by Imran’s party against the Sharif government in the heart of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Later, he had, perhaps, ensured that the 2018 election results were rigged in Imran’s favour (denying victory to Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party), thus enabling him to become prime minister as “Mr Clean” and the leader of “Naya [New] Pakistan”.
Imran wanted Hamid to become Bajwa’s successor in November and thus once again facilitate his re-election in the October 2023 national elections. Imran clashed with Bajwa on this issue. Bajwa was concerned that Hamid’s appointment would have meant his superseding four incumbent corps commanders and five other generals. More importantly, what Bajwa was anxious to avoid at all costs was too cosy a relationship between the elected prime minister and the army chief which, in the convoluted Pakistani scenario, would have diluted the standing of the army as a separate centre of power.
Imran Khan is not the first Pakistani prime minister to attempt to try to boost a favourite from the army to the top position. He was in fact doing what many of his predecessors – at times catapulted to high office by the army – had attempted, i.e. seek to free themselves of this onerous yoke and use the army chief to serve their interests, rather than the other way around. But all such efforts failed in the past, and Imran has been no exception.
After the fiasco around appointments, the germ of mutual distrust continued to fester and manifested itself in the area of foreign policy. On 24 February, Imran Khan landed in Moscow on a pre-planned visit, but on that very day, Russia initiated its attack on Ukraine. The Pakistani commentator, Ayesha Siddiqa, said that this outreach to Russia reflected Pakistan’s “gradual and unplanned drift away from the West towards the East,” though Imran Khan himself sees it as an expression of his independent foreign policy.
Flowing from this, Pakistan abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution criticising Russia. As European Union envoys in Islamabad urged Pakistan to join the condemnation of Russia, Imran publicly retorted: “Are we your slaves?” Bajwa then rushed in with a corrective by stating: “We share a long history of excellent and strategic relationships with the United States, which remains our largest export market.” He also criticised Russia’s military operation in “a small country”, regardless of security considerations, as a “huge tragedy”.
There is no doubt that the no-confidence motion submitted by the opposition in February, with just 100 supporters at the time, had the full backing of the army. It is the latter that facilitated the steady haemorrhage of Imran’s supporters in parliament, starting with disgruntled elements in his own party and then getting the coalition partners to abandon him too, enabling the no-confidence motion to pass comfortably.
The army plays a unique role in Pakistani politics. It views itself as the principal guardian of the national interest and, in this role, as the distinguished commentator Aqil Shah has said, the army high command “continues to consider drastic military solutions to political crises as legitimate.”
The interventions of the armed forces in domestic affairs have involved both the direct exercise of authority through the forcible overthrow of an incumbent civilian government, and the exercise of behind-the-scenes influence on an elected government. The latter is implemented either through private counselling to the leader or indirect use of pressure through judges, media persons, political parties and individual politicians who back the armed forces – up until late last year, Imran Khan was one of those politicians. Thus, Pakistan’s political order has been described as “hybrid” – a mix of democratically elected civilian governments and military authority.
Aqil Shah has importantly observed that the Pakistani armed forces play two distinct roles in the country – the institutional role as the country’s military force (and thus responsible for national security) and the authoritarian role in the politics of the country. The army’s institutional and authoritarian roles coalesce around core issues of national interest – relations with India, Saudi Arabia and the US; matters relating to Afghanistan; the mobilisation and use of extremist groups at home, in India, and in Afghanistan; and nuclear policy.
In the exercise of authority or influence in national affairs, the armed forces are not subject to executive control, parliamentary oversight or judicial review. As Aqil Shah has written in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, “the military’s interference in political and judicial processes has fomented instability, undermined the rule of law, and arrested the development of independent political institutions capable of governing a multiethnic society.” There is no indication that this situation will change any time soon.
Foreign policy prospects
Given that the army is the principal role-player in foreign policy, a few major changes may be expected in this area. Even as Imran Khan continues to pursue the “foreign conspiracy” allegation, General Bajwa will attempt to maintain close ties with the US, particularly the Pentagon, which has been Pakistan’s principal point of contact in the US political establishment. Bajwa recognises, even if Imran Khan chose not to, that, besides defence ties, Pakistan depends on the US to facilitate its interactions with the IMF and to get off the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The Shehbaz government will also mount a major effort to reset relations with the US and European nations – the government has already issued two statements on the importance of its ties with the US, which have been reciprocated by the State Department spokesperson.
However, quite clearly, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, US-Pakistan ties have lost much of their motive force. Given the importance attached by the US to the Ukraine war, Pakistan will not attract much attention in Washington. Some American commentators have, however, welcomed the change of government in Islamabad as helping to improve ties “to some degree.”
Pakistan’s ties with China have also traditionally enjoyed the full backing of both the armed forces and successive civilian governments. China and Pakistan are bonded economically and politically by projects implemented under the $60-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). These are likely to receive a fresh impetus under the Shehbaz Sharif government as both the new prime minister and his older brother, Nawaz Sharif, have a record of backing the speedy implementation of logistics and infrastructure projects. In a public remark, Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed from the prime minister’s party affirmed this when he said: “In the first day in office as Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif met the Chinese Acting Ambassador and told her that Pakistan considers China as Pakistan’s closest friend and strongest partner and we will take the CPEC forward with new vigour, with new vitality and in a rejuvenated manner.”
Early reports indicate that ties with India could improve. These have been in cold storage since the cross-border terrorist attacks in 2016, and worsened after India initiated constitutional changes in the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019. The Imran Khan government then blocked any improvement in bilateral relations until these initiatives were withdrawn.
In his first remarks in the assembly after becoming prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif called for good relations with India, but linked this with the “just” resolution of the Kashmir issue. In line with traditional Pakistani policy, he then added that Pakistan would raise the Kashmir issue at every forum and extend diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiri people. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his congratulations to the new Pakistani leader and affirmed India’s interest in peace and stability in the region that was free from terror. Sharif replied that Pakistan wanted peaceful and cooperative ties with India, for which it was necessary to find a peaceful settlement to all disputes, including the Kashmir issue. He added that Pakistan’s record in fighting terror was well-known.
Though these are standard formulations and do not, in themselves, indicate any new steps in improving ties, it would be useful to see them in the background of statements made in recent months by General Bajwa himself. In February 2021, Bajwa had stated Pakistan’s commitment “to the ideal of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence” and that it was “time to extend a hand of peace in all directions.” This overture led to the two countries ending cross-border firings and agreeing on ceasefire along the Line of Control.
Bajwa followed this up with a speech in March last year, when he said it was “time to bury the past and move forward.” He then added that it was “naïve” to apply “the failed solutions of yesteryears to the challenges of today and tomorrow.” A month later, he carried this message further by calling on both governments “to rise above their emotional and perceptual biases and break the shackles of history” and move towards peace and prosperity. He had set out a non-military and non-confrontationist vision for Pakistan in which the country would be the hub of north-south and east-west connectivity.
Bajwa’s most recent remarks in this vein were made on 2 April, during the domestic political crisis, when he spoke of “using dialogue and diplomacy to resolve all outstanding issues, including the Kashmir dispute” and warned that the “flames of war” be kept away from South Asia.
So far, the response in India has been mixed. While there are numerous sceptics who attach little value to Bajwa’s remarks and await real improvement with regard to cross-border terror, a few commentators believe Bajwa’s remarks should be taken at face value. Thus, Sudheendra Kulkarni, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party, has urged Prime Minister Modi to “respond positively” to this “peace message from our western neighbour.” Two areas in which there could be some forward movement are (i) the restoration of diplomatic ties at ambassador level; and (ii) the resumption of trade ties that had been suspended by Pakistan in 2019.
The Middle East
Pakistan’s ties with the major countries of the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey – have also been managed by the armed forces and, hence, are unlikely to show any major changes following Imran’s departure.
Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia have had a substantial security and military content from the early days of the Cold War when, between 1968-88, Pakistan maintained about 25,000 troops at the Kingdom’s international borders with Iraq, Jordan and Yemen. In 2009, Pakistani troop presence was revived in the wake of the cross-border threat from the Houthis when a battalion was deployed at the Saudi-Yemen border, which was later upgraded to brigade-level.
There was some discontent in the Kingdom when, in 2015, Pakistan refused to join the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, but this was overcome with the appointment of the retired Pakistani General, Raheel Sharif, as the head of the Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition.
Another occasion when Saudi-Pakistani relations deteriorated was in August 2020, when Imran Khan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmoud Qureishi, voiced public dissatisfaction at Saudi Arabia’s refusal to convene a special session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to discuss India’s legal initiatives in Jammu and Kashmir a year earlier. The minister had then intemperately threatened that Pakistan would seek the support of other like-minded Muslim countries, hinting at the Kingdom’s rivals – Iran, Turkey and Malaysia.
This angered the Saudis who demanded that Pakistan immediately return $1 billion of the $3 billion interest-free loan extended to the country a year earlier, while refusing to renew the oil credit facility, valued at $3.2 billion, after it expired. This dip in relations was corrected some months later, when Imran Khan visited Riyadh. In February 2022, Pakistan’s National Security Policy highlighted the country’s energy, economic and defence ties with the Kingdom and its ‘full commitment’ to the security of the holy sites.
Pakistan-Saudi relations are expected to flourish under the Shehbaz government. The Kingdom had given sanctuary to Shehbaz’s older brother, Nawaz Sharif, after he had been ousted by General Parvez Musharraf in a military coup in 1999, which possibly saved him from execution. Not surprisingly, the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad has been among the first envoys to call on the new prime minister. According to media reports, the latter “looked forward to benefitting from Saudi expertise in sectors such as education, health, information technology, and clean energy resources.”
Turkey and Pakistan had close ties during the Imran government as the latter enjoyed Turkey’s support on the Kashmir issue on the basis of Islamic solidarity. In its ties with Iran, Pakistan has traditionally attempted to maintain a balance between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic, keeping in mind its 20 percent Shia population and the long border its Baluchistan province shares with Iran. The Shehbaz government can be expected to pursue close relations with both Turkey and Iran, while imparting a degree of stability and predictability to these ties after Imran’s mercurial tenure.
Outlook for domestic politics
As Shehbaz Sharif begins his first tenure as prime minister, reports in the Pakistani media note his reputation as an able administrator and a hard task-master. He is also likely to have better relations with the armed forces than his brother, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
In the immediate aftermath of his elevation, Shehbaz has put together a coalition government in which four ministerships, including the foreign affairs portfolio, have been given to the PPP and three to the JUI-F. General elections are due in October next year, which means that, constitutionally, the government will make way for a caretaker government in August next year, thus enjoying a maximum of sixteen months in office. The country’s election commission has said it would be ready for national elections from October this year.
Few expect the Shehbaz government to complete a full term of sixteen months. The circumstances in which Imran was ousted suggest that ties with the army will continue to be fraught with uncertainty, particularly since both the PML-N and PPP have a long record of negative relations with the military, while themselves being serious political rivals. They were only brought together by the fervent desire to get rid of Imran Khan and restore “Old Pakistan”. For Shehbaz, this meant getting rid of a government that was “corrupt, incompetent and laid-back,” while Bilawal saw Imran’s ouster as Democracy’s “best revenge”. But other observers may see in this return to “Old Pakistan” a revival of politics-as-usual, i.e. the return to rampant corruption and misgovernance that had marked the governments of the PML-N and the PPP in earlier times.
Besides uncertain ties with the army, two factors could encourage Shehbaz to go in for early elections. First, Imran Khan is likely to be a major disruptive force in the political firmament. Banking on victimhood, having been ousted as a result of “foreign intervention”, and resorting to shrill populist rhetoric, particularly based on widely-popular anti-Americanism, Imran may be expected to organise robust opposition to the federal government and even the army. While he has not named the military leadership as being implicated in the “foreign conspiracy”, his followers have been less restrained – they have shouted anti-Bajwa slogans and, on social media, have called for his removal. In his anti-government agitations, Imran is also likely to bank on the second factor that might end government tenure prematurely – the economy.
Pakistan is reeling from a multi-faceted economic crisis. Rising inflation has particularly hit food prices – they shot up by about 15 percent in March this year, and could go up further in coming months. Linked with this is the balance-of-payments crisis – foreign exchange reserves are about $11 billion, covering just one and half months of imports. Over the last eight months, Pakistan has borrowed $14.5 billion, mainly from the IMF ($6.7 billion), China ($6 billion), Saudi Arabia ($2 billion) and the UAE ($2 billion), a 77 percent increase over last year. Debt servicing over the next quarter (April-June) is likely to be $2.5 billion.
The Shehbaz government is expected to go back to the IMF for financial support, which will entail enforcement of unpopular austerity measures, including reduced government spending, elimination of fuel subsidies, and increased revenue collection. But the new government, recognising the perils of subsidy reduction, has already refused to raise fuel prices recommended by the country’s oil and gas regulatory authority – 14 percent on petrol, 35 percent on diesel and 40 percent on light diesel. The parlous state of the economy and the reluctance of the government to enforce corrective measures in the few months it has been in power suggests that Shehbaz may be encouraged to go in for early elections, rather than earn the odium of presiding over a failing economic order.
At this point, nobody believes Imran Khan will fade away into the sunset. Pakistan’s prominent daily, Dawn, in its editorial after Imran’s ouster, described him as having “unrelenting zeal and sense of divine mission”, adding that although he had evolved into a “vitriolic demagogue”, it would be “unwise to write him off.” In Imran’s defence, the London-based commentator, Peter Osborne, wrote: “Showing exceptional courage, he [Imran khan] challenged vested interests. He tried to root out corruption. He forged a new, independent foreign policy. … he is not corrupt. … it’s a crippling drawback.”
As Imran Khan lost the no-confidence vote, the Daily Times headlined in bold capitals: “The End”, signalling in cinematic terms the end of the prime minister’s stint on the national stage.
This may be premature. As Pakistani prime ministers have bounced back into office several times on the basis of fresh understandings with the armed forces and fresh alliances with rival parties, Imran Khan, to use a cricketing metaphor, has only lost this “test match” – there will be other matches, which will resurrect him and catapult him back to the winner’s podium.
 “Will play to the last ball, says Imran Khan”, Gravitas, WION TV, 31 March 2022, at: Gravitas: Will play till the last ball, says Imran Khan – Just a Word Tv
 “Pakistan’s embattled PM Imran Khan ousted in no-confidence vote”, NY Post, 9 April 2022, at: Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan ousted in no-confidence vote (nypost.com)
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 “’Knew match was fixed’, says ousted Pakistan PM Imran Khan, Reiterates ‘foreign conspiracy’ claim”,
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 Ayesha Siddiqa, “Imran Khan Russia visit was more about reducing ties with US – Pakistan’s looking East now”, The Print, 26 February 2022, Imran Khan Russia visit was more about reducing ties with US – Pakistan’s looking East now (theprint.in)
 Neena Gopal, “Imran’s hit-wicket”
 Aqil Shah, “The Military and Democracy”, in Christophe Jaffrelot (Ed), Pakistan at the Crossroads: Domestic Dynamics and External Pressures, (Gurgaon, India: Random House India, 2016), p. 36
 Ibid, p. 51
 Ibid, p. 24
 Aqil Shah, “The Shambolic End of Imran Khan”, Foreign Affairs, 15 April 2022, at: The Shambolic End of Imran Khan | Foreign Affairs
 “Here’s what political upheaval in Pakistan means for India, China, other nations”, LiveMint, 10 April 2022, at: Here’s What Political Upheaval In Pakistan Means For India, China, Other Nations | Mint (livemint.com)
 Pak PM Shehbaz Sharif to take CPEC forward with new vigour: PML-N Leader” , Business Standard, 18 April 2022, at: Pak PM Shehbaz Sharif to take CPEC forward with new vigour: PML-N leader | Business Standard News (business-standard.com)
 Sudheendra Kulkarni, “Chance for India, Pakistan to mend ties”, The Tribune, 12 April 2022, at: Chance for India, Pakistan to mend ties : The Tribune India
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 Mohammed Taqi, “Is there a Pakistan beyond the hybrid regime?”, The Wire, 16 April 2022, at: Is There a Pakistan Beyond the Hybrid Regime? (thewire.in)
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 “The End”, Daily Times, 10 April 2022, at: THE END – Daily Times