Imran Khan vs 'Pakistan': Why the govt is batting on a treacherous pitch
Or, why Pakistan as a nation must brace for a solution that could well be worse than the current upheaval
With Pakistanis on a ride resembling the combination of a super-fast rollercoaster and a merry-go-round, one cannot resist asking how this cursed nation ended up here. It has faced massive problems since 1947, but the last year, given the nature and intensity of the many challenges that beset Pakistan, has been a dubious standout.
More bleakly, for the first time, no one seems to be in control during a period when stability is badly needed. Instead, there is chaos under the heavens. The iron fist that long imposed an unhealthy order is losing its grip and seems paralysed. A unipolar system has suddenly become a multipolar one, with many stakeholders pulling in different directions.
The main stakeholder, which is also a stick holder, is unable to wield the stick to impose order as it did earlier. The Army, Pakistan’s self-proclaimed umpire, has never been this weak since 1971, when it presided over the loss of a wing and lost control for five years. That loss had come suddenly, this one came slowly.
It started with the end of cosy ties with the US that provided money, arms and political support for imposing autocracy. China will not step in to fill the void. Ties with once pet extremists are now tense. Jihadists used as tools to subjugate and indoctrinate society have had to be leashed given FATF issues.
But the biggest loss has come from the stormy tiff with the political sidekick expected to serve as a weak façade in a hybrid system. The break followed Imran Khan’s incompetence, maverick acts and desire for autonomy. It has forced the umpire to go back to the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) and PML–N (Pakistan Muslim League– Nawaz) neither of whom it trusts or likes.
It has also caused the loss of countless loyal TV anchors and social media trolls who once spread its narrative but have now gone over to Khan. Most crucially, it has lost its narrative to Khan who presents himself as even more anti-US, anti-India and religious.
Autocratic forces control society through a mix of economic carrots and hegemonic sticks. When people willingly buy into the narrative, there is less need to resort to expensive inducements and brute force. Losing the narrative to Khan thus increases the establishment’s transaction costs in its bid to impose its will.
Additionally, the judiciary is also acting aloof and there are rumours of internal rifts within the umpire’s ranks. As a result, the tactics that always delivered in taming pesky politicians in the past are failing against Khan; these include audio and video leaks, legal cases, horse-trading, intimidation, jail visits and forced exile.
Some naively believe the current chaos reflects the end of an elite system, and that a better one will take its place. However, that can only happen where forces for good are also strong enough to take over, and no such forces presently exist in Pakistan. Order will emerge when one or more of the forces upholding the abhorrent status quo— umpire, PDM and PTI—emerges the winner.
What are the other possible paths back to order? The scariest one is the immense pressure by some among the umpires to bring Khan back to power. This may mean prolonged violence, as in Yemen and Somalia; and even if peace descends the set up could ruin us politically, economically, socially and externally. Luckily, the chances of this happening are slim.
Another path is martial law, but that too is unlikely as the establishment would not want to bat on a treacherous pitch with Khan bowling swinging yorkers.
The third likely path is the imposition of emergency under the PDM to tame the PTI, the judiciary and others in the ranks. As the President and judiciary may reject this, it will have to be imposed unlawfully, thus running the risk of Article 6 being invoked later, which rarely occurs in Pakistan.
Option three may open with an internal reshuffle, followed by making the dentist President and rendering the judges toothless, disqualifying and jailing Imran Khan, and rigging polls. It may afford temporary stability but will lead to major losses in the long run. This option will have to be applied with inducements and brutal power, which may be hard to do given the establishment’s current weakness and the West’s backlash.
The best option, which is not impossible, would be free and fair polls and a level playing field. But even this will not end instability or misrule as one of two inept forces—PTI (more so) and PDM—will win.
Neither will accept the other’s victory or let it rule peacefully. The PDM can run the prevailing elite system until it collapses under the weight of its unproductivity. The PTI can destroy it immediately without the ability to replace it with a better one.
Thus, both stability and good governance remain distant dreams.