Friday, February 16, 2024

Pakistan Elections: Imran Khan's Supporters Skillfully Used Tech to Defy Powerful Military

Independent candidates backed by the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) party emerged as the largest single block with 93 seats in the nation's parliament in the general elections held on February 8, 2024.  This feat was accomplished in spite of huge obstacles thrown in front of the PTI's top leader Imran Khan and his party leaders and supporters by Pakistan's powerful military to prevent their victory. 

Pakistan's Official Election Results 2024. Source: Aljazeera 

Imran Khan and his top party leaders were thrown in jail on trumped up charges, his party was denied a unified electoral symbol of cricket bat, his supporters' rallies were banned, the mainstream media were prevented from carrying PTI leaders' speeches and the Internet was repeatedly blocked when the party held online events. So how did they succeed in spite of it? The answer lies in how skillfully the PTI activists used technology to get the party's messages out to the country's young electorate. 

Well over 90% of Pakistan's adults have access to the Internet. This allows them to use a variety of  apps ranging from TikTok and YouTube to Facebook, Instagram and X. The PTI supporters used AI (Artificial Intelligence) to produce Imran Khan's speeches using his own voice and words and made them go viral. They used X Spaces to engage with the public. Here's how Uzair Younus, a Pakistani-American analyst at The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based Think Tank, describes what occurred:

"The result of PTI’s technological campaign strategy was a more engaged and informed electorate, which translated into significant electoral gains. Khan’s PTI managed to galvanize a significant part of the electorate, and the party’s success demonstrates the potential of digital tools to democratize political participation and challenge entrenched power structures". 

When it became clear that the PTI was headed for a massive victory with more than half of the 264 National Assembly seats as live results from the polling started to pour in on the evening of February 8, there was a sudden mysterious delay in real time reporting. Most political analysts in Pakistan believe that this delay was ordered by the Pakistani military to rig the results.  This belief is confirmed by the reports that the total votes reported cast for PTI  by the polling stations on "Form 45" add up to a lot more votes than those reported cast on "Form 47" for over 55 constituencies of the National Assembly. These 55 seats plus the officially reported 93 seats add up to 148 seats giving PTI more than half of the total 264 directly elected members in the National Assembly. 

Any coalition government formed by the PTI opponents is unlikely to be stable or long lasting. This unstable situation will likely prolong the deep economic crisis the country now faces. The best course of action for the Pakistani military is to release Imran Khan from jail and allow his party to form the next government. 

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Vineeth said...

Finally! Thank you for this. Though I have been a regular reader of DAWN for several years and consider myself to be a little acquainted with Pakistan's national level politics, I have always found the dynamics of the "establishment" factor a bit hard to understand. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that despite a shared history for centuries and the many similarities in political and social conditions between Pakistan and India, the latter lacks an equivalent of Pakistan's "establishment" due to several reasons.

First, India's military has always obeyed its civilian masters and has never stepped beyond its mandate. Some have pointed out that this is because in the aftermath of the partition of British India, independent India inherited most of the British Raj's civilian administration structures based out of Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, while for Pakistan its military was the only organized structure when the nation was born. Pakistan's civilian administrative structures had to be created from scratch during its formative period, and this factor (and the war with India over Kashmir) gave Pakistan's military, and its Army in particular, a disproportionate importance and influence in its national politics from the very beginning. The early demise of Jinnah (contrasted with the long tenure of Nehru as PM in India) was perhaps an additional factor why civilian authority over the military did not take root in Pakistan.

Secondly, the three services of Indian military have broadly equal importance and there is a history of rivalry between them as well. Perhaps such inter-services rivalry has been tacitly encouraged by Indian governments to prevent the Army from becoming too dominant and challenging the government. For the same reason, Indian governments shied away from creating the post of a Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) for long, and when they finally did, they kept his powers limited in scope. (That this abundant caution exercised in the interests of civilian supremacy has also limited the coordination between the three services in their operations is another story.) On the other hand, it would seem that in Pakistan it is the Army and the COAS who practically (and perhaps unofficially) heads its entire military establishment, with the Air Force and Navy Chiefs having a subordinate role or keeping a low profile.

Thirdly, India's premier internal and external intelligence agencies - IB and RAW - are both civilian administered, while its three military intelligence agencies act independently and it is the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) of the Indian Government that collects and analyses intelligence inputs from them. By contrast, in the case of Pakistan it is the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that acts as the country's premier intelligence service.

Now to the topic at hand. I am no fan of populists, demagogues and other opportunist politicians in India, Pakistan or anywhere else. Though I consider Imran Khan to have been a beneficiary of the undemocratic shenanigans of the "establishment" in the past, I do credit him and his party for the perseverance they have shown in recent times in challenging Pakistani military leadership's extra-constitutional political meddling. By all appearances, he and his party have been unfairly treated by them in the run up to the elections, and their success in spite of all the hurdles thrown in their path needs to be appreciated and rewarded. If there is one political leader in Pakistan who shows the potential to correct the prevailing military-civilian imbalance, it could be Imran Khan. Nawaz Sharif did make attempts to assert his authority in the past, but has always got booted out. What NS lacked in this struggle against powers, IK seems to have in plenty - personal charisma and widespread popularity among Pakistanis.

Riaz Haq said...

Rawalpindi commissioner says poll results ‘manipulated’ under his watch; ECP rejects claims

Rawalpindi Commissioner Liaquat Ali Chatha made explosive claims on Saturday, asserting that the results of the February 8 general elections were “manipulated” under his watch. He also resigned from his position.

Speaking to reporters outside the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium, Chatha said, “I am taking responsibilty for all this wrongdoing.” He alleged that the chief election commissioner and a top judge of the Supreme Court were “involved in this”.

“We made independent candidates — who had leads of 70,000-80,000 votes — lose by putting on fake stamps,” he added.

In a handwritten letter, a copy of which is available with, he said he was resigning from his “post and service” as he was “deeply involved in serious crime like mega election rigging 2024”.

The letter was addressed to Punjab Governor Haji Ghulam Ali, interim provincial chief minister Mohsin Naqvi and the provincial chief secretary.

When asked if there were “irregularities” in the electoral process and if the local returning officers had delayed the transmission of results, Chatha said that “‘irregularities’ is a minor word for it”.

The commissioner further said that “stabbing the country in its back” does not let him sleep.

“I should be punished for the injustice I have done and others who were involved in this injustice should also be punished,” he added.

Earlier, addressing a press conference at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium, Chatha said there was “pressure” on him to the extent that he contemplated suicide in the morning but then resolved to present matters before the public.

“It is my request to the entire bureaucracy to not do anything wrong for all these political people,” he added.

Responding to Chatha’s claims, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) said it “strongly rejected the allegations against the ECP or the chief election commissioner”.

In a press release, the electoral watchdog said none of its officials ever issued any instructions to Chatha for a “change in the election results”.

Riaz Haq said...

Vineeth: "First, India's military has always obeyed its civilian masters and has never stepped beyond its mandate....."

Academics who have studied the Indian military have found that it is ineffective by design. In "Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence", the author Steven I. Wilkinson, Nilekani Professor of India and South Asian Studies and Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Yale, has argued that the civil-military constraints that have helped prevent a coup have hurt Indian military effectiveness and preparedness in at least three important ways:

(1) the weakening of the army before the 1962 China war;

(2) the problems caused for defense coordination and preparation by unwieldy defense bureaucracy, duplication of functions among different branches and lack of sharing of information across branches and

(3) the general downgrading of pay and perks since independence which has left the army with a huge shortage of officers that affected the force's discipline and capabilities.

Vineeth said...

That there are many weaknesses and inefficiencies in the Indian military is public knowledge and the media here (especially the English-language left-liberal outlets) have often covered them in great detail. For one, India's military (the Army especially) is so bloated that most of the yearly defense budget goes towards paying the salaries and pensions rather than modernization or acquisition of weaponry (which is why Modi govt has been trying to make the forces "leaner" by transitioning to more short-term recruitments of soldiers through "Agniveer" scheme). Secondly, as you pointed out there is a civilian bureaucratic maze involved in defense procurements within the Defense Ministry which leads to lengthy delays in acquisition of modern weapons and technologies. Thirdly, the military here has no direct role or stake in indigenous defense production and this has resulted in many local defense products being rejected for supposedly failing to meet their requirements. There are many such teething troubles..

I do not know how well Pakistani military operates in comparison, but in the light of the extent of its ventures outside its domain (especially in politics and business), conventional wisdom suggests that it should have been even more "unprofessional" and inefficient in its core domain than its Indian counterpart. But even if that isn't the case, the greater question here is whether Pakistan as a nation gained or lost more from having a military that seemingly dominates its politics and economy? All the existential troubles the country has been facing for the past several years - political instability, economic crisis and terrorism - can be seen as the direct result of the military's meddling in matters that weren't its business.

In fact, I might even dare to suggest that if it hasn't been for Pakistan Army's oversized role in that country and the consequent lack of civilian control over its foreign and defense affairs (and its Kashmir policy especially), India and Pakistan would have achieved peaceful relations long ago.

Riaz Haq said...

Vineeth: "If it hasn't been for Pakistan Army's oversized role in that country and the consequent lack of civilian control over its foreign and defense affairs (and its Kashmir policy especially), India and Pakistan would have achieved peaceful relations long ago"

The only times when India and Pakistan have come closest to resolving these issues has been under military rule in Pakistan. Please read below:

Siachin and Sir Creek:

In “How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century”, the author Shyam Saran recalls the crucial meeting of the CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security) on the eve of India-Pakistan Defense Secretary-level talks in May 2006, where the draft agreement, that had been approved by the Army and other stakeholders, was to be discussed. However, he said two key players, the-then National Security Advisor MK Narayanan and then Army Chief General J.J. Singh made last minute interventions to scuttle the proposal, according to a report in The Hindu newspaper.

“When the CCS meeting was held on the eve of the defense secretary–level talks, [Mr.] Narayanan launched into a bitter offensive against the proposal, saying that Pakistan could not be trusted, that there would be political and public opposition to any such initiative and that India’s military position in the northern sector vis- à-vis both Pakistan and China would be compromised. [Gen] J.J. Singh, who had happily gone along with the proposal in its earlier iterations, now decided to join Narayanan in rubbishing it,” Mr. Saran writes.

Agra Summit Failure:

“This is when L. K. Advani surprised Musharraf by asking for Dawood Ibrahim. This took Musharraf back and a shadow was cast thereafter on the Agra summit.” “As Mr. Mishra put it: “Yaar, hote-hote reh gaya … Ho gaya tha, who toh.” Ex Indian Intelligence Chief A.S. Dulat

The above quote is from A.S. Dulat who has served as Chief of India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and as Special Director of India's Intelligence Bureau. He was speaking with Indian Journalist Karan Thapar of India Today on a variety of subjects including Kashmir and Musharraf-Vajpayee Agra summit.

Dulat has essentially confirmed the fact that Indian hawks like the BJP leader L.K. Advani are responsible for sabotaging the India-Pakistan summit.

Vineeth said...

"The only times when India and Pakistan have come closest to resolving these issues has been under military rule in Pakistan."

Though this might appear counter-intiutive and contradict what I stated in the earlier comment, it actually makes sense considering that it was under military rule in Pakistan that we have had the same person calling the shots in both Islamabad and Rawalpindi. When it is a "hybrid regime", we know the two components are on an uneasy coexistence, and aren't often on the "same page" on many matters - including relations with India.

Think from an Indian perspective. When there is a hybrid regime in Pakistan, whom should Indian govt negotiate with over Kashmir, terrorism, trade and other bilateral affairs? Whom does the Pakistani Foreign Minister represent - the civilian setup which has no control whatsoever over the Kashmir policy and jihadists, or the "establishment" which does? Whenever successive Indian govts attempted negotiations with the civilian-run "government" in Islamabad, there has been backlash from the "establishment" in the form of military misadventures (Kargil) or major terror attacks (Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri) which threw the talks off the rails.

For long, Pakistan's "establishment" seems to have had an interest in keeping "India-threat" and Kashmir issue at the forefront (especially so during hybrid setups) as it allowed them to legitimize and justify their interferences in front of the public, and undermine the civilian setups. Nawaz Sharif evidently saw the danger and folly in continuing to run the Kashmir jihad project and apparently confronted the "establishment" over this (DAWN leaks), but the "establishment" eventually had him kicked out through a "judicial coup" instead.

If the civilians had the upperhand as decision makers in Pakistan, they would have realized sooner the folly of continuing an adversarial relationship with its larger eastern neighbour for decades over a pointless emotional pursuit of land, and would have seen the desirability of normal neighbourly relations and trade, either through formalization of the status quo or by confining territorial disputes to diplomatic domain. Pakistan Army on the other hand persisted with needling India on Kashmir through wars (1965, 1999) and jihad because it suited their domestic political objectives to be the dominant power centre.

Vineeth said...

"Dulat has essentially confirmed the fact that Indian hawks like the BJP leader L.K. Advani are responsible for sabotaging the India-Pakistan summit."

If Indian "hawks" sabotaged peace talks, how about the Pakistani "hawks" like Musharraf himself who launched an unprovoked war in Kargil when Vajpayee had initiated a peace effort with Nawaz Sharif? Or Pakistan's jihadist spymaster Hamid Gul, and his role in the Khalistan movement and Kashmir jihad? (Of course, India's RAW might be practising the same dark arts against Pakistan in Balochistan and KP these days, but they would have resorted to it as the only effective response to Pakistan's own proxy wars.)

I do not know about the specifics of the "draft proposal" at the India-Pakistan Defense Secretary-level talks, or why the then Indian NSA and Army Chief opposed it on the grounds that it would weaken India's military position in the northern sector vis-à-vis both Pakistan and China, so I cannot comment on it. (China is always a greater and long term threat for India to consider in any proposal involving troops redeployments in that region, and in the light of past experiences India had ample reasons to be skeptical and distrustful about Pakistan's peace overtures as well.)

And how is L K Advani asking Musharraf about Dawood Ibrahim deemed responsible for "sabotaging" India-Pakistan summit? Why should Musharraf be put off by such a legitimate question? What exactly are Mumbai underworld dons like Dawood Ibrahim, and internationally proscribed jihadists like Hafeez Saeed and Masood Azhar wanted by India for multiple attacks doing in Pakistan in any case?

Riaz Haq said...

Vineeth: "If Indian "hawks" sabotaged peace talks, how about the Pakistani "hawks" like Musharraf himself who launched an unprovoked war in Kargil when Vajpayee had initiated a peace effort with Nawaz Sharif?"

Have you heard tyhe expression "Only Nixon could go to China"? Musharraf had the national security credibility to try and make peace with India; Nawaz Sharif simply couldn't.

It was Musharraf who came closest to a deal on Kashmir.

‘Manmohan, Musharraf reached deal on Kashmir’ | India News | Zee News

New Delhi: A US diplomatic cable, leaked by WikiLeaks, has revealed that India and Pakistan had in 2007 reached a deal on the Kashmir issue when Pervez Musharraf was the President.

According to reports emerging today, the cable cited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as telling a senior visiting US delegation in 2008 that a “non-territorial solution” had been agreed upon.

While the revelation is not new, as many Pakistani politicians and diplomats have spoken about the same in the past, but it is the first time a reaction from the Indian side has come to the fore.

According to the cable, the PM told a visiting American delegation headed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman in April 2008 that significant progress had been achieved prior to February 2007 when Musharraf, the country’s former Army Chief, was serving as the President. Musharraf was ousted from power in that year itself.

“We had reached an understanding in back channels in which Musharraf had agreed to a non-territorial solution to Kashmir that included freedom of movement and trade,” the cable cited Singh as saying. “The Prime Minister added that India wants a strong, stable, peaceful, democratic Pakistan and makes no claim on ‘even an inch’ of Pakistani territory,” the cable added.

Majumdar said...

Brofessor sb,

This is a somewhat unusual post from you. You have held the view that for developing countries, military dictatorship is the way to go. Shouldn't you be advocating a view that the Army should appoint a technocratic govt till Pak turns around rather than rooting for an IK govt.


Vineeth said...

"Musharraf had the national security credibility to try and make peace with India; Nawaz Sharif simply couldn't."

There is a similar situation on this side of the border as well where it is generally assumed that only a right-wing nationalist BJP government can make a peace agreement with Pakistan without the fear of being branded "anti-nationalists" or "Pakistan appeasers" for it. For Congress, there exists the risk of a narrative that has been framed by BJP that they have been too soft on Pakistan and has thus sacrificed the country's interests. This puts Modi government in a strong position to negotiate a peace settlement from the Indian side (if it wants to do so, that is). Then the question will be, who should lead the negotiations from the Pakistani side for the talks to be credible? The "establishment" or the "government"?

As for Musharraf's peace plan itself, a "non-territorial" solution is in any case all that looks feasible as India isn't likely to agree on a plebiscite and neither country can afford a war either. The outside world (with the exception of China which has interests on the Ladakh frontier) has practically no interest to wade into the dispute. However, the catch here is that in the light of tensions at the Ladakh border, India would have to take into account the "China factor" while deciding on any troop deployments in the region. After all, much of India's military modernization and acquisitions these days are driven by a perceived threat from China rather than Pakistan. Though India might agree to reduce troop deployments at its Western border (LoC, WB/IB, Punjab etc) as part of a peace deal, Pakistan cannot realistically expect India to do the same in the Kashmir region as a whole as it is vital to the defense of Ladakh in the event of a war with China.

Vineeth said...

So, all indications point to a PDM 2.0 - a coalition that Pakistani public apparently did not vote for - as the next civilian "setup/facade" in Islamabad. I would hesitate to call it a "government", "administration" or "regime", as it is quite clear it would be nothing more than a civilian facade for the real power center pulling strings behind the screen, and that real power center is clearly in no mood to humour Kaptaan and his team by giving them another chance. (And for someone like me who had been following Pakistan's national politics for over a decade through DAWN's news, editorials and op-eds, what a spectacular collapse it has been for the Kaptaan facade after the first rumours of the "same page" tearing apart appeared in Fahd Husain's column.)

It makes me wonder - could the Kaptaan have managed things a bit differently and tactfully back then so that such a rupture could have been avoided? I do not know how Turkey's Erdogan managed to tame their "establishment" and assert civilian superiority in their political system, but Kaptaan should perhaps give that playbook a shot when he gets another chance at the PM House, which he hopefully will some day. (After all, the puppeteer has a history of changing his puppets every few years, either out of boredom or when there is a change of guard.)

Vineeth said...

An interesting observation in today's editorial in DAWN:

"Perhaps the party (PTI) really had not expected to be handed such a large mandate — this may explain the disarray within its ranks since the results. Perhaps it never intended to form the government, knowing well the difficult conditions in which it would be taking over; consider that neither did the PML-N and PPP seem too enthusiastic about their decision, till they were ‘convinced’ by higher powers."

It would seem nobody is actually enthusiastic to wear the crown of thorns and sit on the "iron throne" that is Pakistan's premiership at the moment. And the party that seems to be enjoying the best of times is PPP, as it gets what it wants without taking direct responsibility or blame for the unpopular economic measures that PDM-2.0 would be forced to take under IMF diktats. As usual, the ones pulling strings from behind will remain unaccountable as well.

If I have understood the Pakistani political system correctly, it appears to be one that is unique, strange and doomed to perpetual instability even by South Asian standards.