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What does Imran Khan’s failure to live up to his core constituency’s expectations (about not letting the ‘corrupt’ escape) reveal about his political career? Umer Farooq discusses.

There is nothing new in Chaudhry Pervez Ellahi’s revelation that ISI was forcing politicians to join PTI in 2010—at least nothing that people already don’t know about ruling party’s dubious relations with the intelligence services.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the knowledge of Pakistan’s political and media circles about Imran Khan’s connections with the ISI—as an opposition leader—is much more advanced than what Chaudhry Pervez Ellahi has agreed to reveal publicly in an interview with a private news channel.

What is in fact startling about Chaudhry Pervez Ellahi’s revelation is its timing—it is coming at a time when Prime Minister Imran Khan has asserted his authority as the chief executive for the first time before an increasingly dominating military top brass.

Although Imran Khan’s decision to assert his executive authority in attaching conditions to government permissions to allow former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to travel abroad for treatment was seen as least popular of his decisions, he did succeed in convincing his core supporters that he was not going back on his early promise to hold ruthless accountability of political elite in the country.

This stance, however, did annoy the already excessively assertive top brass with which Prime Minister Khan had earlier agreed to send Nawaz Sharif abroad without attaching any kind of condition to the permission. The earlier agreement, with the suggestion from the top brass to send Nawaz Sharif abroad without any condition, was announced by Imran Khan’s spokesman on television screens, but when he came face to face with his party leaders’ response to this decision in internal meeting he too decided to attach pre-conditions to the decision.

Imran Khan’s party advised him that his decision to allow Nawaz Sharif to go abroad was looking like an NRO—abbreviation or code word for extending pardon to those politicians allegedly involved in financial corruption—he and his close associates first tried to put up a spirited defense of the decision that it was not NRO but later decided to attach conditions to save their own skins.

This was a typical case of a traditional-conventional politician giving in to the pressure of his core constituency. Every politician doing popular politics come face to face with such situation many times in his political career—politicians do get a sense of how his or her core constituency is reacting to his decisions through different channels of communication available to them.

If the reaction is adverse the politicians can go into his core constituency and try to convince them to see his decision from his perspective. And if he fails in this bid, he might change his decision in the face of continued opposition coming from his core constituency. Imran Khan did the same, first he tried to convince his core constituency that giving permission to Nawaz Sharif didn’t violate his promise to the nation that he would carry out accountability in a ruthless manner. But his core constituency didn’t get convinced and only after that, he attached conditions to the government decision.

What does this episode reveal about the political career of Imran Khan—who in the popular imagination has always been seen to be a show boy of the establishment? Since his rise in popular politics of the country, Imran Khan’s name has always been labeled as a blue-eyed boy of Pakistan’s establishment in post-2010 period. His successful rallies in Lahore and agitations in Islamabad were all seen to be part of military’s machinations and intrigues. His electoral successful has been attributed to be machination of country’s military led intelligence services. He is seen as the yes man of Pakistan’s military establishment in the last one year that he has served as prime minister of the country.

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But now can we assume that Imran Khan is changing course and is defying the military establishment’s assertive attitude in running the day-to-day affairs of the government? It will be an exaggeration to make any suggestion to this effect at this stage as he is too dependent on military establishment for the continued survival of his government. But we can safely assume that Imran Khan will not remain a yes man of the military for a very long period of time as he has started to drift away in the direction where a politician listens more to his core constituency than the power-wielders who have brought him to power.

Giving his core constituency more importance is already an indication that he wants to chalk out an independent course for himself and his party. May be there are other occasions in his political career or his recent political career where he listened more attentively to his core constituency than to the military top brass, but we don’t know about those occasions as there has been too much political propaganda and noise related to Imran Khan.

But this is a very visible occasion when he rejected the advice from military top brass and listened more attentively to his core constituency.

In Pakistan’s history, for those politicians who have a history of reliance on the military’s machination to come to power, the turn towards assertiveness and independence usually come when they are facing a severe political crisis, which can either oust them or inflict a serious damage to their government.

Obvious example, which comes to mind is Nawaz Sharif. He started chalking out an assertive course for himself in 1993 when the then military backed President ousted him from power through an order dissolving the National Assembly. He went into complete defiance and that was the year of Nawaz Sharif’s rise an independent political player.

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In subsequent years, Nawaz Sharif continued to hobnob with the military and intelligence services of Pakistan, but as an independent political player. His independence was reflected in his endeavors to get a man of his choice in the top slot in GHQ and appointing man of his choice as intelligence chiefs.

I am not at all predicting such a course in Imran Khan’s political career—first of all because he is not facing a situation where he could be ousted from power. But in his perception or in the perception of his party man allowing Nawaz Sharif to go abroad with conditions would have inflicted serious damage to the PTI government in Islamabad. This might have led Imran Khan to chalk out an independent course for himself and his party to secure his vote bank.

Secondly, the country’s political situation doesn’t allow Imran Khan to embark on the course of defiance. Nawaz Sharif right now is dominating the anti-establishment politics in the country and he has taken anti-military politics to a feverish pitch to the extent that there is no space left for anyone to occupy even a little corner of this space.

Here there is a similarity between Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan’s political careers—both started as a pro-military politicians, but later Nawaz Sharif went down the path of total defiance and Imran Khan only chalked out an independent course, or may be more? We don’t know yet. When Nawaz Sharif embarked on the path of defiance after separating himself from pro-military politics, there was ample space for that kind of politics in the country as Benazir Bhutto in 1993 joined hands with the military backed President to come back to power in Islamabad. Imran Khan doesn’t have this kind of luxury as Nawaz Sharif has not left any space for anyone else to come forward as anti-military politicians in the country.

Now we come to the real question: Why does the military keep on manufacturing new political leaders to do their bidding in national politics? First of all, the point to understand in this regards is that the military has the social and political capacity to produce such manufactured politicians.

Secondly, in Pakistan’s pie of national resources, which has to be divided among different players is a very small one—meaning the institutions, which are in desperate need of national resources especially financial resources to continue to carry out their functions are the most desperate that this pie is divided according to their wishes.

 

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