It is a question that perhaps even the main characters of our country’s political theatre privately ask themselves. In recent days and weeks, developments that seem both ordinary (by our standards at least) and extraordinary have driven the political crisis that has gripped Pakistan towards what appears a crescendo. And yet, the more you try to make sense of actions and reactions, the less clarity you find yourself with.
In a nation of populist politics, Imran Khan has shaped himself (or has been shaped into, some would argue) the populist par excellence. Famed Argentine political theorist Ernest Laclau, in his seminal work On Populist Reason, described how populist movements coalesce around ‘empty containers’ – slogans, messages or individuals so vague that they could mean or represent anything. As Imran unleashes yet another long march for Haqeeqi Azadi (true freedom), what the end goal looks like is anyone’s guess. Maybe the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader does have a hand of cards to play that for now he would rather keep close to his chest. Maybe he is making it all up as he goes along, like you would in the absence of any coherent gameplan.
To criticise Imran alone for this, however, is to be facetious. Our politics and democracy have long had only two modes: ‘guided’ or improvisational. What else could Pakistan have in the absence of any real political alternatives based on coherent ideas and manifestos? Simply a choice between two or more cults of personality. Well, for now, one cult appears to have more appeal to a perennially dissatisfied segment of Pakistani society and various stakeholders would do well to introspect why.
Whether it is simply perception, there is no doubt that much of our urban middle class, the youth in particular, is jaded when it comes to the usual suspects of Pakistani politics. And why wouldn’t it be – their governance record aside, all of them are guilty of alternating between seeking the establishment’s blessing and railing against it when their wishes are turned down. Imran may be guilty of it too, but for now he can relish in the ‘outsider’ effect.
On Thursday, the heads of the Inter Services Intelligence and the Inter Services Public Relations appeared together in an unprecedented news conference to reiterate that the establishment is ‘apolitical’. Various commentators have made of the statement what they will while exhorting the establishment to ‘actually end interference once and for all’. But as that philosophical adage from political science goes, being apolitical too is a political choice in and of itself.
All governance systems in all nations, no matter what term is chosen to describe them, suffer from quirks of history, culture and other specific circumstances and pressures. For better or for worse, these quirks are near impossible to remove despite good or bad intentions, hardwired as they are into the very nature of what constitutes power in a given state. They only morph into something else through the constant shifting of historical forces. It can be argued that given the quirks of Pakistan’s own history, the establishment will always, willingly or unwillingly, be drawn into politics.
History aside – and we have seen this in action as recently as this year’s floods, the IMF loan, the resolution of Reko Diq and the exit from the FATF Grey List – the military establishment’s support is necessary for the state’s executive arm to deliver many of its most basic functions. While it is easy to take an all or nothing position on this aspect of Pakistan’s power structure, we must reflect on what would actually serve the people best.
Coming back to the present confrontation, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the establishment appear to be locked in to a political escalation ladder. Whether by the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s design or by its ‘good fortune’, the focus of Imran Khan’s rhetoric has swayed away from the ‘thieves in power’ and ‘imported regime’ narratives to an out and out conflict with the establishment. As other commentators have highlighted, a once synergised relationship now seems frayed beyond repair – although stranger things have happened in our nation’s history.
It is difficult to imagine how either side might deescalate – would they even want to? But the cold hard reality for the country appears bleak. On top of the worst climate catastrophe in decades, our economy continues to teeter on a precarious perch. While the finance minister insists Pakistan will not default, international credit ratings agencies and observers show little faith. Let us also not forget that the sort of floods we suffered this year may well become an annual disaster. What happens to our economy and food security then? The political machinations that hog our airwaves seem no more than a sideshow in comparison. We can only hope and pray that those engaged in this showdown show the flexibility needed to act in Pakistan’s best interests.