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On the road to confrontation: Imran Khan’s power trip

Supporters of Pakistan's ousted former PM Imran Khan listen to his Long March speech in Lahore.

Supporters of Pakistan's ousted former PM Imran Khan listen to his Long March speech in Lahore.

REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

On Friday, Pakistan's former PM Imran Khan finally kicked off the "Long March" he’s been threatening for months. Khan’s move is a familiar one in this part of the world, which has a rich history of mobilizing to achieve political goals.

Indeed, less than a century ago, Mohandas K. Gandhi, the father of modern India and progenitor of civil disobedience, kicked out the Brits through non-violence — and his footsteps. In 1930, Gandhi started his famous Salt March, walking 239 miles across his home state of Gujarat to defy colonial rule. His initial few dozen followers eventually turned into thousands, ushering in the beginning of the end for the mighty British Raj.

With that march, Gandhi birthed a long tradition of political protest on the subcontinent: If you want change, walk.

That’s why Rahul Gandhi, no relation to Mohandas but the leader of the same Indian National Congress, has been walking across the world’s largest democracy for over a month in a “Unite India '' march — his attempt to counter ascendant rival, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Across the border, Khan’s march is well underway in a country that has had a very different experience with democracy. The launchpad is Lahore, Khan’s hometown and Pakistan’s cultural capital; the destination is Islamabad, the federal capital and Khan’s last residence, from where he was removed from power in April. The goal is to trigger snap elections, a prize the political establishment is denying him.

Although general elections are due in October 2023, Khan wants them now, and with reason: The 70-year-old has never been more popular. He accuses Washington of orchestrating regime change against his “independent” foreign policy. However light on evidence, the rhetoric resonates as Khan’s transformation from cricket champion to Islamist savior continues to impress voters. Despite the economic chaos his government left in its wake, he’s been sweeping by-elections, holding mass rallies, and doing what no other Pakistani politician has dared to do without being incarcerated, or worse: taking on the all-powerful military.

The distance Khan is traveling is close to what Gandhi traversed 92 years ago — about 234 miles, which can be covered in about four hours of driving — and the tactics are similar. He is pacing his march over the week, aiming to arrive by Friday. The goal of staggering the journey is to gather a mass following and political momentum.

As he left Lahore on Friday with a crowd of about 10,000 to the tune of nationalist pop music and Islamist anthems, Khan announced that he expects more than a million people to join him on the historic Grand Trunk Road, the country’s political heartland and the path of many movements that preceded his.

But in Pakistan’s violence-ridden history, most of those campaigns have not ended well. In 2007, I followed former PM Benazir Bhutto, whose own march was attacked by a suicide bomber in Karachi hours after she launched it upon her return from self-exile (days later, Bhutto was assassinated on the campaign trail).

In 2016 and 2017, as waves of Islamist protesters marched in support of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, the violence not only injured many colleagues but also paralyzed the capital, including the forced closing of my daughter’s school for weeks.

And in 2014, as Khan laid siege to Islamabad for over six months, ending the normalcy of daily life for hundreds of thousands of residents and officials, I covered his first Long March, a failed attempt to overthrow the government of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (he only ended the protest after a deadly terror attack killed 150, including 134 children, shocking the country).

Clearly, Khan thrives in such chaos. But this time, Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s younger brother, is the prime minister, and the government has warned Khan about breaking the law. Crucially, Sharif has the support of the military, which Khan has fallen out with.

Yet since his removal, Sharif’s administration and its military backers have failed spectacularly in their attempts to stop the Khan juggernaut. Every tactic has backfired: from framing flimsy terrorism charges against Khan, to conditionally disqualifying him from running for office, to arresting and torturing his deputies, to cracking down on coverage of his rallies (including live reporting of the Long March itself). The establishment has been forced on its back foot in such an unprecedented way that the shadowy spy chief had to hold an emergency press conference to explain the military’s precarious positioning.

But as the generals call out his “illegal and unconstitutional” maneuvering, Khan marches on.

Will the pedestrian brinkmanship propel him back to power? “There’s no recent precedent of a Long March peacefully forcing a change of government or policy,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, founder of the Islamabad-based think tank, Tabadlab. “But two factors can change things: violence, or a long, enduring political paralysis that forces powerful players to blink first.”

Zaidi assesses that Khan has neither the stomach for the first nor the capability — sans military support — for the second.

But Khan might disagree. As his followers swelled into the thousands on the trek toward Islamabad over the weekend, Khan urged them to obey the law, even as intelligence officials warned about terror attacks. A stark warning of the dangers involved came Sunday with news of a female journalist being crushed to death. Sadaf Naeem, 36, died after falling from one of the Long March vehicles, prompting Khan to express his condolences and halt the march for the day.

Earlier, as the carnival atmosphere was sustained by lively music and speeches, the playback of one classic song, dating back to the 1965 war with India and with lyrics pushing to “destroy all that comes in the way and fill the battlefield with bodies,” prompted Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most respected journalists, to advise caution and let politics be politics.

But as Pakistan’s failing security state — infected by decades of self-destructive jingoism, jihadism, and interventionism — finds itself increasingly polarized, confrontation is seen by some as a solution, not a problem.

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