As Selected ‘Electables’ Flounder, Progressives Must Develop An Agenda For Change
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar says that as the current experiment in Islamabad falters, progressives in Pakistan need to regroup and build an agenda of change that focuses on a new social contract for democratisation of state and society in Pakistan.
The PTI, its diehard supporters have always insisted, represents something new. The first party other than the PPP or PML-N that has controlled the reins of government since the end of the Zia dictatorship more than thirty years ago. A first-time prime minister in Imran Khan, a man untainted by ‘corruption’, winner of Pakistan’s first Cricket World Cup and builder of inimitable cancer hospital. Perhaps most importantly, a party and government that represents the hopes and aspiration of a new generation of young people that want change.
The rhetoric has always glossed over the irreconcilable contradictions of the ‘tabdeeli’ brigade. When the electoral calculus necessary to win a parliamentary majority is pieced together by ‘convincing’ opportunist politicians with historic ties to the establishment to jump what are perceived as the sinking ships (PPP and PML-N); the mainstream media and intelligentsia help build a cult around Imran Khan’s person, whitewashing massive anti-democratic exercises like the 2014-5 dharna; and much of the religious right makes common cause with the PTI on matters of great significance to establishment, it is clear that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Before and immediately after the 2018 general election, the chorus had already become deafening: this was a ‘selected’ government, the selectors were playing out a familiar script, having exhausted a working relationship with the beleaguered Nawaz Sharif, unwilling to do business with Zardari or Bilawal.
Today, more than 18 months into the PTI’s first stint in power at the centre, the most ardent PTI supporters are struggling to defend the chaotic state of affairs playing out in Corona-paralysed Pakistan. Over the past 36 hours, two developments have put the cat amongst the pigeons. First, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi made sounds about the need to ‘revisit’ the 18th amendment, a bitter pill that the establishment and its many lackeys have still not been able to digest. Shortly thereafter followed the appointment of Lt. Gen (Retd) Asim Bajwa to the post of Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information.
The good general’s appointment is notable because he is already head of the highly sensitive CPEC authority, and was arguably the first man to definitively take the position of army spokesperson (DG ISPR) into the information age. The old ideological battle against federalism, democracy and civilian supremacy continues and it has now shifted largely into the digital sphere.
Yet General Asim Bajwa being thrusted into the fray is just the latest intervention seeking to stabilize the current dispensation; patience with the PTI experiment is clearly running thin in the real corridors of power. The situation has worsened considerable with the government’s dismal and disjointed response to the COVID19 pandemic: Imran Khan is certainly not the only populist leader in today’s world floundering in the face of the biggest public health emergency and economic shock to hit the world in decades. But the federal government’s sheer lack of competence in handling a crisis which is now three months old has been widely contrasted to the PPP-led Sindh government, and Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah especially so.
In truth the latter has simply exhibited more sensitivity and humility in the face of the multiple challenges that the Corona Crisis presents; these leadership traits have been magnified many times over by the bungling of the Prime Minister, particularly on the matter of lockdowns – farcically refuted, then imposed, then made ‘smart’ without any clear logic. Meanwhile doctors and nurses on the frontlines demanding personal protection equipment (PPEs) are being criminalized in Punjab and Balochistan – both provinces in which the PTI is in power.
The contrasts between Murad Ali Shah’s relative grace and Imran Khan’s egotistical rants, have, of course been further magnified by inexplicable attacks on elected government by the superior judiciary. More generally, almost eight decades after the creation of the state, its unelected apparatuses – the military and increasingly the judges– still crave a colonial, viceregal system of government in which authority is centralized in ‘efficient administrators’. Imran Khan and the PTI, then, are simply the latest in the long line of puppets more loyal than the King that seek to ultimately implement the latter’s agenda.
The 18th amendment has of course now become the establishment’s bete noire, precisely because it has decentralized power (although mostly in principle more than practice). And as much as it might want, the establishment cannot, for the time being at least, manufacture either the parliamentary majority (two-thirds) required to repeal the amendment, or have it struck down on other grounds.
And herein lies the rub: the PTI is steadily being exposed as the ‘selected’ outfit that it always was, even if many young people – especially in Punjab – bought into the rhetoric of change. But the other mainstream parties push the limits of the establishment-centric system only to the point that their own viability as electoral forces is not compromised. Whenever an election cycle comes around, virtually all of the country’s mainstream parties rely on ‘electables’ that are ultimately loyal to the establishment, and not the people of Pakistan.
Until and unless this cycle is challenged by a genuinely progressive politics that cannot be coopted by Rawalpindi – the kind that organic movements like the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement represent, but which, as yet, has not taken a truly federal form – Pakistan will remain stuck in a game of musical chairs. As the Corona Crisis plays out in weeks and months ahead, progressives can either wait and see what the next iteration of this zero sum game of mainstream politics throws up next, or close ranks around a minimum programme based on the redressal of long-standing class, ethnic, gender, religious and other inequities, peaceful co-existence with neighbouring countries, and a major shift in budgetary priorities away from defence towards health, education and housing; in short, a new social contract to democratise state and society to guarantee a future of peace, equality and prosperity for all of Pakistan’s long-suffering people.
The author teaches at Quaid-e-Azam University. He is also Leftist politician affiliated with the Awami Workers Party’s, Pakistan.