There are dangers of a rift within the Army itself, with many younger officers actually supporting Imran’s ideology. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Army did not clamp down on the protestors attacking its property, with its usual gusto.

The arrest of Imran Khan on 9 May was nothing unusual in Pakistan’s politics. Six Prime Ministers have been arrested before him, some more than once. Nor were the circumstances of his arrest particularly odd (After all, Benazir Bhutto was picked up at her brother’s funeral). He was nabbed by black-clad Rangers in full riot gear, who broke through the windows of the Islamabad High Court, where he was attending a hearing for a corruption case against him, and whisked him away. What made it unusual was the reaction that followed. Across the country, his supporters raged through the streets of Islamabad, Lahore, Quetta, Peshawar and other towns screaming “Imran Khan ko na chhedna” (Don’t touch Imran). The Army Headquarters at Rawalpindi was attacked, the Corps Commander’s residence at Lahore was breached and vandalized and his mutton korma and strawberries taken. Even his prized peacocks were carried away, with the claim that they were stolen from the people and were being taken back by them. Police vans were set ablaze, and radio stations and government buildings burnt. This “Strawberry Revolution” was an outpouring of anger and frustration akin to the Arab Spring or the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution—and reflected the anger and frustration of people reeling under inflation, floods and decades of endemic corruption and mismanagement by the Army and an inefficient government.

But, by all accounts, the arrest of Imran Khan was long due. He has been charged with over 145 cases and the list will only increase after the latest bout of arson by his supporters. He was in court for the Toshakhana case, where he was charged with keeping expensive state gifts—including a Graff watch, golden cuff links, pens and other items worth PKR 21.5 million, instead of depositing them in the government treasury as per rules. He was picked up by the appropriately named NAB (National Accountability Bureau) for his involvement in another case—the Al-Qadir case—for siphoning over PKR 50 billion for personal use. Prima facia, the case seemed to hold water. While in power, he quashed a case of a powerful Islamabad based real estate company, Bahrain Town, which had illegally tried to transfer PKR 50 billion overseas, and the amount was seized by British authorities in London. Imran’s government ordered the transfer of the amount back to Pakistan. But rather than hand it over to the government treasury, the amount was given “as donation” to an NGO, Al Qadir Trust, along with vast quantities of prime land. Ironically, the only two trustees of this so-called philanthropic organization were Imran’s wife Bushra Biwi and her close friend. This is a grave charge, and if indicted, Imran and his wife could face a long time behind bars, or worse.

But it is more than just a corruption case. Imran has taken on both the Army and the Shehbaz Sharif government—an uneasy coalition of the warring Bhuttos and Sharifs—ever since his ouster in a no-confidence motion in April 2022. His rant against the “foreign-installed government” that unseated him because he refused to do America’s bidding has only increased his following. He is easily the most popular and the most divisive man in Pakistan, and if elections are to be held soon, in October as is scheduled, he is likely to emerge as an undisputed winner. Both the Army, and the ruling political parties want him discredited as a political force, and though he is too popular to be eliminated (like Benazir) he can still be side-lined before the elections. Hence the raft of cases against him.

Imran has gained a reprieve when the Supreme Court disallowed the manner in which he was arrested, and the High Court then granted him a two-week bail in all cases. He has been released, but it does not absolve him from the numerous cases against him, ranging from murder, treason, blasphemy and terrorism. It is quite likely that another arrest and trial will take place, that could imprison him and prevent him from participating in any further elections. Should Imran be jailed or even banned from elections, there is no second rung leadership that could take over, and his Tehreek-e-Insaaf Pakistan party would be no threat then. But the arrest has only increased his image as a lone warrior fighting a corrupt system and Imran the wounded is more dangerous than before.

Many feel that the Army is behind the arrest and the drama that followed and it is probably true. The Rangers who arrested him are directly under the Army and led by Army officers. There is growing talk that the Army could declare martial law and bring in Army rule once again. But that seems unlikely. Firstly, the anger targeted against it during the riots, show that it is has lost its sheen, perhaps permanently. The public would not acquiesce to an Army takeover, nor would the world community. Secondly, with the state that Pakistan is in, they would not want to clean the Augean stables. The economy is tottering, it has only $4 billion left in foreign reserves, the PKR is 300 to a dollar, and inflation is at an all-time high of 46%. The much-awaited IMF loan of $1.1 billion which could bail out Pakistan temporarily, has been repeatedly delayed since IMF mandated reforms cannot be implemented in this political instability. In fact, Imran too has a hand at delaying the loan to compound the economic travails for Shehbaz Sharif’s government.

There are also dangers of a rift within the Army itself, with many younger officers actually supporting Imran’s ideology. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Army did not clamp down on the protestors attacking its property, with its usual gusto. Army morale too, is not too high—and the recent statements of former Chief General Bajwa, that the Army is in no position to fight India—has merely highlighted it. But at the same time, the Army will not take this slight lying down. The Army Chief, General Asim Munir, was personally accused by Imran of being responsible for Pakistan’s sorry state of affairs—and of even trying to assassinate him. The two have a history of antagonism that goes back to when Imran—who was Prime Minister then—persuaded Army Chief Bajwa to remove Munir as ISI Chief. Munir’s own position—and the cozy equation that Army has enjoyed for the past 70 years—is threatened by Imran’s constant attacks, and if he returns, he will upend the entire apple cart. They will thus clamp down on Imran Khan, ensure that he is discredited, and then support the Sharifs and the Bhuttos in forming the new government after the elections in October. Shehbaz Sharif could also be convinced to declare a state of emergency in the wake of the violence that has taken place, and thus postpone elections indefinitely. That will allow the Army to continue holding on to the reins of power, without the responsibility.

But what if Imran returns to power? Should he manage to evade jail with the help of the judiciary (which seems sympathetic to him) and remain free to contest the elections, he will win in a landslide. That will make him even more powerful to take on the Army and his political opponents. Yet, Imran’s attack on these institutions—coming at a time when Pakistan needs all parties to come together to tackle the social and economic problems besetting it—has set him on a confrontation course that will weaken him, the Army, the political system, and eventually Pakistan itself.

And what of Pakistan? It is paying the price for policies it has followed for seven decades now. Its social, economic and political travails are the result of the policy of antagonism it has followed with India. Unfortunately, these policies have become articles of faith and unlikely to change now. And in all this, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Islamic fundamentalists are just lurking in the wings, waiting to seize the moment that this instability provides. The Army is strong enough to quell them—should there be will. But a populace, frustrated by growing poverty, and angry at its Army and the government, may turn to the radical brand of Islam that the TTP offers as the only solace. The danger of a nuclear-armed Pakistan becoming another Afghanistan is very real—which is the greatest danger for Pakistan and the region.

India has not commented on the sorry state of affairs, nor have most foreign nations. But the instability threatens us as well. Pakistan could use the time-tested bogie of India to rally a desperate population. They are in no position for a direct attack, but can intensify actions in Kashmir and maybe terrorist attacks in the hinterland. We would not be shedding any tears for Imran Khan’s travails. After all, he is even more rabidly anti-India than the army, and unlikely to take any steps to reduce the hostility. But should a somewhat balanced government emerge by the end of the year (like the Nawaz Sharif government in its early years) some measure of talks, give and take, economic cooperation, and a modicum of friendly relations could be restored. That in itself, would be the first step in getting Pakistan out of the hole that it has dug itself into.