Islamabad, Pakistan – Imran Khan is once again trying to bend the arc of Pakistani politics to his formidable will.
Recently removed as prime minister, Khan has quickly returned to his political roots and is rallying his supporters against what he calls a rigged system.
And his supporters are responding.
At a rally in Karachi on Saturday, Khan was cheered on by a sizeable crowd as he once again laid out an alleged plot by the United States to remove him from office.
“So tell me, Pakistanis, was this a conspiracy or not, raise your hands and tell me,” Khan asked.
“Conspiracy!” the crowd roared back.
The exchange was a swipe at Pakistan’s powerful military leadership.
On Thursday, military spokesman Major-General Babar Iftikhar made national headlines, rejecting Khan’s claim the US had partnered with allies inside Pakistan to remove Khan.
The military spokesman specifically refuted the use of the word “conspiracy” by Khan, prompting the former leader’s exhortation to the crowd in Karachi.
The back and forth between Khan and the military leadership is part of a high-stakes political strategy by Khan to keep himself at the centre of the national political discourse and force early elections on favourable terms.
For the cricketer-turned-politician, the risks are significant, with the military leadership bristling at the freewheeling political criticism directed at it, since his exit, at protests organised by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and on social media.
“Army draws its strength from people and any effort to create wedge between army and population won’t be tolerated,” army chief General Qamar Bajwa was quoted as telling his officers in a reference to unnamed “hostile forces”.
According to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Bajwa also warned that “misinformation and propaganda threaten state integrity” and called for countering “speculations and rumours”.
For years, the PTI revelled in being on the “same page” as the military leadership, a claim of civil-military harmony unlike under previous civilian governments.
The PTI also routinely castigated its political opponents, particularly the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), for allegedly maligning the military leadership.
Now, it is the PML-N that is accusing Khan and his PTI of attacking the military leadership.
On Monday, Marriyum Aurangzeb, likely to be the next information minister, accused the PTI of organising a campaign on social media to “abuse institutions, promote hate speech and spread chaos in the country”.
Khan’s latest political quest, this time to regain power, is also colliding against the reality of power being consolidated by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, whose government now controls parliament.
And on Saturday, amidst fisticuffs in the Punjab Assembly, Pakistan’s most populous province, power was again wrested away from Khan’s PTI.
The new chief minister of Punjab, Hamza Shahbaz, is Sharif’s son – the first such father-son duo in Pakistan’s history.
The formation of the federal cabinet may spell further consolidation, allowing the new government to pivot away from Khan and focus on its own constituencies.
So, with Khan’s next public rally in Lahore on April 21, supporters are bracing for a possible escalation in his rhetoric.
“It seems the idea is to apply pressure, to increase pressure,” Sher Ali Arbab, a PTI parliamentarian in Peshawar said of Khan’s strategy.
“But if Khan becomes more direct in referring to the establishment and the role of the judiciary, it could become a really explosive situation.”
While the role of a crusading political outsider is not new to Khan, his public admonishing by the military leadership is new and the politician is walking the narrowest of tightropes.
To maintain political pressure on the new government, Khan must keep his base charged and angry. But some of that anger is directed at the military leadership, risking further alienating a powerful constituency that could still hold the keys to political power in Pakistan.
Khan’s prime ministership unravelled after the military leadership publicly distanced itself from the PTI government and assumed a posture of so-called neutrality, allowing the opposition to dislodge Khan.
Until now, Khan has carefully avoided directly blaming the military leadership for his overthrow, focusing instead on his narrative of a US plot with local facilitators.
But some of Khan’s angry supporters have been less reticent.
Videos and messages on social media have purportedly shown PTI supporters alleging military interference and manipulation against Khan.
“It is a very dangerous game,” Shuja Nawaz, author of The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood, told Al Jazeera.
Nawaz said the military will “protect itself as a corporate entity” from political attacks that erode its leadership’s standing with the public.
But in the upside down, topsy-turvy world of Pakistani politics where an ally turns foe and foes allies, Khan appears to have increased his support among a large cohort of influential allies: retired and serving military personnel and their extended family networks across Pakistan.
Support for Khan among the military cadres is not new. His ascent to political power in 2018 was widely popular in the military and, for years, a coterie of retired military officials vigorously defended Khan in the media and denounced his political opponents.
But retired military personnel and their families are rarely vocal in public when political power changes hands in Pakistan and strict rules guide the public conduct of serving personnel.
With Khan’s removal, however, a dam appears to have burst.
“It is surprising, certainly the extent of it is,” Ayaz Amir, retired military officer and now a political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Why have you done this and for what purpose – not just retired but serving personnel are asking too.”
Since Khan’s exit, a torrent of comment and criticism has been unleashed on social media and private messaging groups, running the gamut from dirges to screeds in favour of Khan by retired military officers and apolitical military housewives and young adults.
“These are the pillars of patriotism, the officer corps concentrated in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and their families. They weren’t all always supporting Khan, but when they look at the alternative [the new government], they see no option,” Amir said.
Political controversies and internal divisions are not new for the Pakistani military.
In 2008, General Pervez Musharraf, the former military head, was forced out of office with his popularity plummeting and in the wake of a rivalry with General Ashfaq Kayani, who succeeded him as army chief.
But an affinity for Khan runs deep in military cadres, powered in part by a distaste for his political opponents who are once again in charge.
Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, suggested that the surge in military opinion in Khan’s favour has been a long time in the making.
“The military has created this moment for itself with its anti-corruption narrative since 1985. Traditional politics has been cast as corrupt and non-representative. It has all come to a head now.
“You created a messiah in Imran Khan. Why are you surprised that people want to follow him even now?” Siddiqa asked.
The outpouring of support for Khan among military personnel – serving and retired, young and old, junior and senior, and their families – is a sensitive issue in Pakistan because it has the potential to cast the weight of overall military opinion behind Khan and against the military leadership.
The Pakistani media has only elliptically referred to the incipient groundswell and Khan has limited himself to expressing a deep admiration for the military’s fighting spirit and patriotism.
But shifts are already evident.
On Thursday, military spokesperson Major-General Iftikhar announced that Bajwa will retire in November, forgoing the possibility of a second extension in service that he is eligible for.
Since Khan’s exit, Bajwa has been criticised on social media and in private messaging groups – unthinkable mere weeks ago.
It is a stunning reversal for a military chief who was spoken of in fawning terms until recently.
Aurangzeb, the likely next information minister, has blamed the PTI leadership for the social media attacks against Bajwa, while the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has conducted a series of raids and arrests across Pakistan, including of PTI social media activists.
The PTI has denied allegations of a campaign against the military leadership.
Meanwhile, as Khan hurtles ahead with his campaign to dislodge a government that dislodged him, he appears to have an advantage his opponents did not: the relative lack of enthusiasm and support for the new government.
Wracked by internal contradictions, confronted by grim economic challenges and faced with a general election that must be held by late 2023, the new PML-N-led coalition government has struggled to articulate a governing message and does not have the political capital that comes with winning a general election.
In contrast, Khan has the indefatigable energy of a political rebel who has spent decades in opposition and is now armed with an emotive tale of an unjust conspiracy to steal his government.
So, while Khan is once again on the outside looking in, it may not be for very long. Or perhaps a second term may never come – Pakistan’s politics remaining as confounding as ever.
“There is a gap between the top 150 officers and the rest of the military,” the author Nawaz said. “The younger officers see Imran Khan as better than the political alternatives, but the senior group has seen Imran’s Trumpian tendencies.”