Imran Khan’s second assault | Zahid Hussain

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Can Imran Khan accomplish this time what he failed to do in his last attempt? He plans to bring down the government by launching a second ‘tsunami’ and shutting down the capital. His confidence seems to have grown after his party’s impressive show of strength at last month’s rally in Raiwind. He is on a solo flight once again, and the other major opposition parties may not come to the rescue of the government as happened in 2014.

Yet it seems improbable, if not impossible, to force an elected government that still enjoys the confidence of its electorate to quit through a sit-in in the capital. A big crowd could certainly paralyse the capital but not close down government. That lesson the PTI chief should have learnt after his four-month long dharna in the capital. Is it just a political gamble by a ‘naïve’ political leader, or is there something else in his political calculus? One is not sure given his sheer determination.

Conspiracy theories abound as the PTI’s Oct 30 deadline comes at a time when civil-military relations hit another low with the transition in military leadership just weeks away. Such a conspiratorial narrative has gained widespread currency given the alleged backing of some elements of the security establishment of the 2014 storming of the capital by the Imran Khan-Tahirul Qadri duo. But linking the PTI’s march to some conspiracy to force the government to extend Gen Raheel Sharif’s tenure as army chief seems far-fetched.

Is it just a political gamble, or is there something else in the PTI chief’s calculus?
Some elements within the government and the PML-N have also reinforced this perception presumably to divert attention from the Panama Papers scandal involving members of the Sharif family. The spectre of military intervention has also been effectively used by the government to scare away the PPP and other opposition parties from joining the PTI march, though they all support the demand for the prime minister’s accountability.

Indeed, Imran Khan’s own intransigence and habit of taking solo flights has made the government’s task that much easier. His decision to boycott the joint session of parliament on the Kashmir issue and his tirade against his own allies has widened the cleavage among opposition parties. Yet all that has not helped ease the pressure on the prime minister vis-à-vis the Panama issue.

Underneath the confidence the worries of those at the helm are evident. Sharif’s concerns are surely compounded by the recent slide in civil-military relations. The widening distrust is evident in the media reports of barbs exchanged at recent top-level meetings involving senior civil and intelligence officials. The proxy war between the two institutions is now being fought on TV talk shows.

The anxiety in government is growing with the approaching date of Oct 30 and suspicion of the khakis backing the siege. The tension is likely to heighten with the security establishment getting increasingly edgy over what it apparently suspects could be a concerted move to drag it into the fray. These developments are casting a huge shadow over the impending transition in the army leadership. That surely makes the prime minister’s task of picking the new army chief more challenging.

The problem is not going to go away with the retirement of Gen Raheel Sharif as perceived by some sections of the government. For them, it is more to do with the institution rather than one individual.

While accountability of the prime minister in the Panama Papers scandal may still be the central rallying point for the PTI’s anti-government movement, the decline in civil-military relations has also given it fresh impetus. The issue seems to factor strongly in the party’s assessment even though the decision to make a ‘final push’ may not be driven by it. It is so obvious that the march alone is not enough to bring the government to its knees.

Hence comes the conspiracy theory about the ‘unholy nexus’. But any calculation of the military’s support seems highly exaggerated as experienced by the party during the 2014 dharna. It is a dangerous gamble by Imran Khan that could have very serious consequences for his party’s political future. It is hard to maintain a mass support base after losing the same battle twice.

It is never easy for the military to intervene in any way in the midst of a leadership transition. Further, it is currently engaged on so many external and internal security fronts. The tension on the Line of Control and India’s growing belligerence is also a restraining factor. However, the situation could change if the PTI march manages to close down the capital for a prolonged period of time. The chances of this happening seem remote with the PTI fighting a lone battle and given its inability to mobilise support in other parts of the country.

Nevertheless, the pressure is showing on Sharif though he is not yet willing to give in to the demand for setting up an independent commission to investigate the money trail to real-estate properties through offshore companies. After initially agreeing to present himself for accountability, Sharif has now shut the doors to any substantive inquiry.

One of the major factors contributing to his intransigence is that much time has lapsed since the Panama leaks and the inability of the opposition to mobilise public opinion. Sharif’s confidence has also been boosted by his party’s success in the Azad Kashmir polls and by-elections for the National Assembly and the Punjab legislature. But the PTI has revived the issue and has put it back on the political chessboard.

There is now no doubt that the Panama scandal is hanging like the sword of Damocles over Sharif’s head. Though he can still drag on, there is certainly no escape from this sticking issue. It is his choice whether he wants to fight it out or defuse the situation by agreeing to the demand of installing an independent inquiry commission with clear terms of reference. But it involves the risk of getting caught as there are too many skeletons in his family cupboard. A critical battle lies ahead.