Worse and Worse

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

IMRAN Khan warned the nation he would be even more menacing in political opposition than in office as the incumbent PM. That seems true: But menacing to what? Possibly to things other than he intends. There is cause for alarm in the way Imran Khan is responding to personal and political challenges to his determining national destiny. We draw in our breath at the crowds the former PM attracts at his jalsas despite having failed to get the numbers required to defeat a vote of no confidence moved in 2018’s electorally mandated Parliament a few months ago. His personal political popularity appears to have increased on the streets. What does this signify about the PTI’s role in Pakistan’s parliamentary democracy?

     In his rather hard-pressed last months of office the former PM added the label ‘treason’ to the stale narrative of pervasive corruption in the previous administration(s) and continuing party leadership of the PPP and PML;N. Those who did/would not support prime minister Imran Khan actively, and respond to his call whenever, wherever, whatsoever, were — wittingly or unwittingly — buttressing the chors and dakkus (his democratic mainstream political challengers) who, he claimed he had proof, were guilty of treason, and were serving an external power’s desire to be rid of doughty Imran Khan, Pakistan’s incorruptible patriot PM. This startling accusation was later modified into the chorsdakus and ghadars subjugating national interest in shameful, nationally humiliating, subservience to an external power’s interests and desires. Citizens who sat on the fence, or were spectators rather than Imran Khan’s foot soldiers while the internal political struggle was waged, were ‘animals’. He presented an impassioned critique of the official military stance and that institution’s political neutrality (or lack of it?).

Imran Khan’s expanded narrative added ‘neutrals’, ‘animals’ and ‘ghadar’ to the PTI hymnbook and the evolving vocabulary of national political discourse. The anti-Pakistan country he indicated as the ‘traitors’ handlers was the USA. This appealed to veins of anti-Americanism in Pakistan:  the US not having dealt too kindly with us after having made use of us – men and positioning – in adventures with Afghanistan whether in support of the Mujahideen or dislodgement of the Taliban. And subsequently, in inexcusably gross ingratitude, giving preference to Bharat – a declaredly anti-Pakistan entity.

The residue of Pakistan’s British Raj anti- colonial sentiment settles more readily on American superpower than Russian. We deplore the latter’s godlessness first and foremost and are as yet unfamiliar with direct political domination from it. American arrogance, coupled with the EU’s and NATO’s blatant duality in the application of moral standards and waging of ‘just wars’, causes many Pakistanis to be critical – with validity – of the western bloc’s inconsistencies in upholding democracy in tandem with its varying decisions to ensure or challenge the sovereign will of other nations and their regimes.

Elasticity of choice and policy shifts are every country’s sovereign right and if a superpower disallows that courtesy to small fry and can itself flout universal human rights and get away with it, using military IT from afar, as well as other peoples’ boots on the ground, there is little to deter it and sometimes not even the UN is able or willing to chide it. Even so, Pakistanis are not comprehensively or compulsively anti-American or occident-phobic, or even neo-con-phobic. If Imran Khan were to disavow anti-American sentiment per se, it would not lose him his fan-club.

Just as we are not always merely paranoid in our misgivings and critiques of western use of soft/hard power in promoting or safeguarding global democracy; some of the misgivings that the West has regarding Islamic extremism are also valid. Indeed, segments of Muslim society suffer themselves at the hands of Muslim extremists or can be hostage to them. National political leadership can make a pusillanimous tactical retreat; or worse still, cynically fan and exploit religious fervour against internal political oppositional challenges; or, in ill-judged sincerity, endorse aggressively intrusive fundamentalist extremism. 

What is of internal political significance and cause for alarm, rather than the crowds Imran Khan attracts, is that the nerve of fervid street-battle readiness he activated and relies on has the unquestioning intensity and obedience that accompanies the worst sorts of zealotry and fundamentalism. His rhetoric and posturing has a deeply divisive and inflammatory psychological impact on Pakistan’s body politic; where there have already been horrendous incidents of mob madness against perceived blasphemers that were gingerly handled by fearful incumbent governments.  

From the outset Imran Khan’s political tactics have been derogatory, obstructive and confrontational. PTI enthusiasts have, since Imran Khan’s defeat in parliament, publicly manhandled and insulted the ‘other’ adherents as enemies of the people, and gone un-chided by their own leader. Here it is important to recall that the defeated PPP and PML-N were in 2018 ready to accept and discharge the conventional role of democratic parliamentary opposition. It is distressing that the PTI-opponents’ language now echoes the PTI’s. It is the democratic system itself, not targeted party rivals, that suffers most when contending political candidates appear much of a muchness.

The main components of the PDM are too seasoned politically not to have known the kind of cauldron they were jumping into in moving a no confidence motion against the incumbent and themselves taking on the responsibility of navigating a gravely floundering ship of state. Rather than showing individual political ambition or party advancement, the decision is reflective of deep national concern about what the PTI’s democratic ineptitude and administrative drift was doing to weaken the country. Whether or not the PDM’s government can complete a journey to economic recovery and weave national cohesion, it has for now averted the threat of IMF default at considerable cost to its own mainstream party popularity.

Apart from making things difficult for the incumbents, Imran Khan’s political behavior is weakening national standing. He is treating the military establishment and the judiciary as if they too are political – as distinct from national constitutional – entities. ‘True’ freedom and an unquenchable revolutionary spirit is what he most recently claims to have ignited. He proclaims nothing can hold back the ‘Imran-tigers’ he will at a time of his choice unleash for the real independence his revolutionizing leadership will confer on Pakistan.  

The reality is that Pakistan is not under a colonial yoke. It has its shortcomings and vulnerabilities as a nation – even superpowers do – but it is learning its lessons democratically. The PTI versus the rest struggle is not doctrinal in any way: it is merely about who occupies the PM’s office and enjoys executive power. This has constitutional limits. Any Pakistani PM/President who seeks absolute powers in whatever guise is liable to meet the kind of rejection by Pakistan’s freedom-minded citizenry that Nawaz Sharif in tenure 2 did, or Bhutto in 1977. Even post-Musharraf ‘hybridity’ encounters constraints, for Pakistanis truly have the love of freedom and individual self-respect that Imran Khan claims to be holding in his exclusive gift for his country.