Side Mirror

The Spillover Effect

Indian media outlets are exploiting the assassination attempt on Imran Khan as an indication of Pakistan’s worsening political situation

By Taha Kehar | December 2022

The assassination attempt on former premier Imran Khan was widely condemned as a heinous attack of political violence. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others issued fervid statements that conveyed their disapproval of the gun attack perpetrated during Imran’s anti-government protest.

India’s initial reaction to the news wasn’t as vociferous as these heartfelt condemnations, possibly due to the fragile stalemate between the enemy states. Even so, it was fuelled by cautious pragmatism that masked the looming fear of an unwanted spillover effect.

Soon after the shooting incident, India’s external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi assured journalists during a briefing that “ongoing developments” from Pakistan were being closely monitored.

With time, the foiled attempt on the erstwhile Pakistani prime minister’s life began trending on social media. Indian media outlets billed the incident as a veritable turning point in Pakistan’s delicate political environment. Some segments of the Indian Twitterati adopted a cynical thesis on these developments and concluded that the Indian media’s rapacious appetite for updates from across the border seemed a tad excessive. “[The media] has ample time to cover Imran’s yatra but no time to cover Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra,” a Twitter user commented on the day of the attack. The former PM’s Haqeeqi Azadi March and the Congress Party’s ongoing mass movement to undo the damaging consequences of the BJP’s divisive politics bore symbolic similarities. Yet, Rahul Gandhi’s yatra received “skeletal coverage” in the Indian media. This led skeptics to view the disproportionate interest in agitation against an incumbent regime in Pakistan as a possible distraction from its own socio-political realities. However, the issue wasn’t just steered by a diversion tactic.

India’s surging interest in the gun attack was attributed to the fact that Imran is a “household name” in the country.

At first glance, these assumptions appear to be plausible as Imran’s popularity in India precedes his agitational politics. A report on BBC’s website stated that the former Pakistani PM’s reputation as a cricketer made him “the heartthrob of an entire generation of Indians”. The same report also suggested that the former premier’s personal relationships with high-profile celebrities of Indian cinema and Indian cricketers was the sole cause for the attention he gained in India after his assassination attempt.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to accept that Imran’s glorious reputation as a cricketer could have whitewashed his failures as a statesman. A year after Imran was sworn in as the premier of ‘Naya Pakistan’, his government indefinitely imposed an import ban on goods from India following the illegal occupation of Indian Occupied Kashmir. This decision posed severe economic implications for both countries that were exacerbated by the ambiguities of COVID-19.

At this critical juncture, we must look beyond the narrow purview and recognize the cold fact that India’s renewed interest in Imran had little to do with his past glories. Instead, the Indian establishment was far more intrigued by what he has grown to represent since his ouster in April 2022. Since Imran lost the vote of no-confidence and stepped down, he appears to be on the offensive against the incumbent coalition government, the military and the intelligence agencies. Owing to the image he has cultivated as a thorn in the side of Pakistan’s establishment, the former premier became the civilian poster-child of a blatant war against the country’s military. It is no secret that Pakistan operates as a hybrid democracy wherein the military pulls the strings from behind the scenes. Imran’s unwillingness to toe the line and criticize the very institution that once backed his dispensation was perceived as a sign of overt resistance. Even Imran’s avowed efforts to clarify that his criticism of the military wasn’t a reflection of a full-blown face-off, did little to suppress this image.

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