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Faced with falling numbers in the National Assembly, Pakistan Prime Minister had said that he would “play till the last ball”. And he did. Even if he ended up losing, becoming the first prime minister in Pakistani history to be booted out in a no-confidence vote.

On Saturday, forced into a no-confidence vote by the Supreme Court, Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, decided to filibuster proceedings. The term borrowed from American legislative practice, involves legislators delivering long-winded speeches in the hope of delaying a vote (the record is a held by a racist US senator who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an attempt to block equal voting rights for African Americans).

However, even as Khan’s PTI was trying to slow things down in the Assembly, things were heating up outside.

News channels put out reports that the Pakistan Supreme Court was preparing for a special midnight hearing if its order to carry out the vote on Saturday was violated. The Pakistani Election Commission opened its offices, ready to fire the speaker (a PTI man) on the orders of the court.

At around 11 pm, prisoners’ vans from the Islamabad Police ominously parked themselves outside the Assembly – widely interpreted as a threat that if the vote was not carried out by the time the clocks struck midnight the speaker and resisting PTI legislators would be physically carried off. Pakistani airports were put on high alert, ready to stop any government officials trying to flee the country.

Khan versus Bajwa

But the epicentre of events on Saturday night was the Prime Minister’s House. Rumours swirled that Khan had tried to have the army chief, General QJ Bajwa, fired. A petition was even filed in the Supreme Court asking the court to roll back any such order. Events peaked, with reports of the army chief, the head of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence body, and other senior army officials flying to Khan’s residence in helicopters.

These dramatic events were confirmed by a BBC Urdu report on Sunday. Khan had tried to fire the army chief but had been stabbed in the back by his own defence ministry, which simply refused to issue the notification. In 1999 too, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had tried to preemptively fire the army chief, Parvez Musharaf, only to get ousted instead. With his bid to replace Bajwa a damp squib, Khan’s party was forced to allow the no-confidence vote, which Khan expectedly lost along with his prime ministership.

A ‘hybrid’ regime

The end of Khan’s time in office had been some time coming. The former cricket captain and national hero was elected prime minister in 2018 – a wild-card entry to the country’s politics. Khan’s rise was widely seen to be with the backing of the all-powerful army, the strongest force in Pakistan’s politics.

Khan was an unabashed populist, representing middle class anger against the country’s established ruling elite. The major success of his rule was social welfare, especially the introduction of a popular health insurance scheme. However, Khan was also a disaster economically for Pakistan, with the country’s gross domestic product actually falling during his term along with the emergence of spiralling inflation.

Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa. Credit: Thomas Kienzle/AFP

Worse of all for Khan, the army, which had chaperoned him to power, lost confidence in him. The past few months saw Khan and the army go head-to-head, often in public.

The major public outcome of this was a remarkable split in foreign policy, with Khan insisting that the Pakistan army chief was a puppet of the United States and in classic populist fashion, blaming plans to vote him out on a so-called foreign hand. Bajwa, on the other hand, used the Ukraine war as a peg to signal that Pakistan was still very much aligned with the United States.

Complimenting India, attacking US

As part of his fight with the army, Khan would repeatedly praise India, trying to hold it up as an example of a “self-respecting” nation with an independent foreign policy. This was in contrast, he argued, to Pakistan, where the army that controlled foreign policy was allegedly under the thumb of Washington.

There was little proof that the United States had anything to do with trying to oust Khan but in a country that has had a bruising relation with Washington, thanks to the near-constant war in neighbouring Afghanistan, Khan’s populist conspiracy theories were lapped up by his supporters.

In yet another remarkable moment in this saga, Khan’s dismissal was accompanied by PTI supporters openly attacking the Pakistan Army. Late on Sunday night, there were reports of large anti-US and anti-army protests breaking out across Pakistan driven by Khan’s supporters.

India’s angle

What does this internecine war between the army and its former protege mean for India?

Khan, true to his positioning as a right-wing populist, has largely stuck to a hard nationalist line when it comes to attacking India. In 2021, Khan was also instrumental in blocking a trade deal with India, citing the Indian government’s abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. That Khan has now chosen to repudiate his earlier politics and, in his desperation, portray India in a positive light, positioning the United States as Pakistan’s primary enemy instead, is a sign of the waning strength of anti-Indian politics given the country’s internal chaos.

Without Khan’s populist politics and a dangerously weak economy, the army itself would be ready to make positive moves with respect to India, predicts the Indian Express Subhajit Roy. On April 2, in a significant statement as matters were heating up for Khan, Bajwa claimed that Pakistan was ready to “move forward” on Kashmir. This came after a similar statement last year, when he had said it was time for both India and Pakistan to “bury the past and move forward”.

Khan’s most likely replacement, Shehbaz Sharif, is also seen as being in favour of peace with India, following in the footsteps of his brother Nawaz Sharif, who had in 2015 even hosted Narendra Modi for a family wedding in Lahore.

Modi hugging Nawaz Sharif in 2015 as he attended the wedding of Sharif's grand-daughter in Lahore. Credit: PIB

That said, while conditions for India-Pakistan peace become somewhat easier with Khan’s ouster, it is unlikely that big changes would be made. Relations are frigid now and Modi has little to gain from unfreezing them immediately. With India comprehensively outstripping Pakistan economically over the past three decades and the latter’s economy in shambles, any material gain for Delhi would be minor. Conversely, the political risks of dealing with Pakistan are significant. The end result: there is little incentive for Modi to make any big moves.