Not quite Hobson’s choice

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

THOSE who favour civil over military politics in Pakistan fret that PM Imran Khan’s personalised mode of governance obstructs the flow and continuity of the federal democratic political process and facilitates the entrée of centralistic benevolent dictatorship.  A question then arises: is he using the military or are they using him? The tenor of occasional judicial pronouncements unpleasantly recalls the coziness of the relationship with President General Zia; and Imran Khan’s PTI is no grassroots, often aggressively independent, democracy-minded element in party politics aiming to reduce military trespass into civil space.

   Is the PTI a king’s party or just the captain’s? If the iron hand has not merely donned cricketing gloves for form’s sake, are Imran Khan and a judicious military combine hand in glove?

Unlike 2018, the road to PTI success in elections 2023 is not paved with good intentions: these have been found functionally deficient.

Let alone the underprivileged irrelevant citizen, even the beneficiaries thereof, do not deny the validity of the corruption rubric conferred on the PML-N and PPP. But that is not enough to kill a party. Nor should it sustain it: And more than two years into its mandated tenure, a perception that the PTI too is nourished on the milk of human corruption cannot be quelled. Highlighting the corruption of other political contenders is now tactically a boomerang.

It is become a very real problem for Imran Khan’s supporters that the government he leads keeps stalling. Ordinary people, not just sidelined political veterans, mistrust the PTI’s predisposition for dual nationals and expats, who, if not the richer the better, live happily away from the national impact and performance of governments they may, if the PM’s legislative will has its way, increasingly vote in or out of power.

Parliament presently is emblematic of democratic embarrassment. By absenting himself from proceedings except when formally compelled, the Leader of the House, Pakistan’s chief executive, rendered it tangential to political developments. Provincial Governor Houses and homework at Banigala are more focal. The President contributes most generously to extra-parliamentary political management with a profusion of ordinances and the occasional reference when desired. The Law ministry, correspondingly, is much in evidence falling over its own feet or treading on others. All this detracts from respect for the ‘system’ and those who are manning it.

 Government propagandists keep repeating that the PML-N and PPP are corrupt, merely self-serving, and beyond redemption. When parliamentarians and politicians are sweepingly denigrated, how can a democratic system in all the virtue of its abstractions be concretized? What solution is there to Pakistan’s democratic quandary other than the oft-tried and costly one of change the system and meanwhile disregard its constitution? Can one discern a smile on one half of the hybrid bloom?  

One quite proper parliamentary alternative is for the PM to dissolve the House and call for early elections. In the existing ambience, fresh elections may not inspire trust. Electoral dexterity could return the PTI (or a less mulish substitute) to power with a mandate as heavy as Nawaz Sharif’s in his second tenure. The PM has for now preferred to demonstrate his political standing by rather unconventionally originating a move for a parliamentary vote of confidence, which he duly received.

Apart from the empirical lessons of Elections 2018, there are justified reservations about Census arithmetic and gerrymandered constituencies. National elections will stay problematic unless and until structural problems are discussed within the parliamentary framework with a view to genuine, not contrived, consensus. Any interim caretaker government debating new democratic frameworks and skeletal constitutions for Pakistan’s citizens would be facing the task in a Pakistan quite different from Ayub’s; Yahya’s; Zia’s; Musharraf’s: in terms of the tensions within the country and its diversity of nationalist mindsets; as well as in the externalities of the complex geopolitical surround. If Imran Khan remains determined to bowl out the other side the ‘game’ could be over.

Pakistan and Pakistanis need the platform of democratic opposition as much as – if not more – than they need good governance. For democratic opposition is a pointer towards that end.   

Post the Senate seat outcomes, the PDM is being treated as not having held together as well as having petered out among the masses. One explanation has it that unlike in 1977, the mainstream parties accepted the 2018 electoral outcome despite deeming results rigged: The psychological moment was lost. Given the fragility of the democratic tradition, even in hindsight there was greater wisdom in not disputing the new entrant’s control of a coalitional government. The mainstream rivals had the confidence they could adapt and adjust to contesting another day. Another explanation of the PDM’s apparently lost momentum is that rejecting military political monitors or partnership has scared off patriots.

Where the government likes to see traitors; many of us see inclusivity. Actually, the question for the PDM is not whether it can galvanize street-power, but whether it should. The healthiest, most positive, contribution of the PDM so far has been that the jalsa at Lahore, officially labelled a flop, had Achakzai and Mengal speak to the locals of the capital of Punjab province and have them listen with empathy and some understanding. Perhaps Punjabis needed to experience how it feels to have political choices pre-empted and misinterpreted by watchful big brothers.