Parallel politics in Pakistan
By: Mahir Ali
It might have made slightly more sense had the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) announced the resignation of its elected representatives from all assemblies but one before Imran Khan embarked on his motorized azadi (freedom) march last Thursday.
It may even have conveyed the impression of something vaguely superior to strategy-making on the hop. It is obviously noticeable that Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has been left out of the loop, by virtue of the PTI being the largest party in the provincial assembly.
Exiting that particular assembly would produce the largest effect. But it would also have crystallized a revolt among Imran Khan’s motley crew. Hence the hypocritical exception, even though it may not suffice to soothe ruffled feathers among PTI members of other provincial assemblies and the National Assembly, where the Tehreek is the third largest party, but with only 34 members in a house of 342.
In the run-up to last year’s elections, the PTI appeared to be seriously entertaining delusions of being swept into power in Islamabad. It fell far short of that goal, to put it politely, and “massive rigging” emerged as the inevitable culprit. However, other parties whose popular vote fell well below expectations chose, for the most part, not to latch on to that accusation.
The fact that Imran Khan’s sit-in protest in Islamabad has reportedly attracted less than three percent of the million protesters he vowed would take to the capital’s streets ought to have reminded him that he has consistently overestimated his support.
The parallel “revolutionary” mobilization by Canada-based televangelist Tahirul Qadri has been marginally more impressive, but that too fell short by well over 90 percent of the promised million.
In both cases this could be interpreted as a reminder that politicians routinely over-promise and under-deliver. And that in some ways Imran and Qadri are not terribly different from those they seek to displace.
Beyond seeking the immediate resignation of the Nawaz Sharif government — a demand that can be seen as undemocratic as well as unconstitutional — their aims are both broadly disparate and ultimately desperate.
Imran wants fresh elections. After a year of the Sharif administration, there’s a fair chance that such an exercise would produce a somewhat different result, but the likelihood of the PTI being returned to power at the national level remains abysmal. Perhaps the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) would fare better after having been reduced to a largely Sind-based rump in the wake of Asif Ali Zardari’s dismal presidency, but that’s hardly a particularly encouraging prospect.
Qadri, on the other hand, does not want elections at all. The panacea he envisages is a national government of technocrats that would wipe out Pakistan’s multiple ills, from endemic corruption to deeply entrenched disparities of wealth and privilege.
It’s a vision that many people find attractive. It’s deeply flawed, though, in terms of precedence. Above-the-fray technocratic administrations have been experimented with before, notably by Pakistan’s two most recent military dictators. Their failure to produce desirable results is a part of the history that too many Pakistanis choose to ignore.
Qadri’s credentials for offering an alternative to the status quo have never been terribly clear. He told the BBC on Monday that there was no basis for allegations about his relations with the military hierarchy, and that he had never communicated with any chief of the army or Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He said he sought neither a military dictatorship nor a theocracy, what grabbed him was the idea of a democracy along the lines it is practiced in the US, Canada, Britain and the European Union.
One can only wonder whether the founder of Minhajul-Qur’an International (MQI), whose website prominently features testimonials from the likes of Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and several other former prime ministers, properly realizes that the democracies he cites as role models are, for all their flaws, demonstrably secular. Notwithstanding his frequently bizarre demagoguery, he is clearly no fool. But if he holds back from the ‘S’ word because it may not go down too well with his madrassa-tutored acolytes, then it’s surely galling of him to accuse anyone else of hypocrisy.
While Qadri on Tuesday was allowing the government only a few hours of survival, it has long been clear that the only serious threat to the administration could come from the army, which had little trouble in removing Sharif from power in 1999, prompting widespread celebrations, even though many of those who rejoiced in haste had cause to regret at leisure their initial enthusiasm for Pervez Musharraf’s cockpit coup.
None of the foregoing is intended as a defence of the Sharif regime, but surely it would be wiser for any political outfit with a substantial following to focus its efforts on displacing it democratically at the next elections, rather than initiating half-hearted political revolts that serve chiefly as a distraction. Imran Khan’s invocation against paying taxes is as much of a damp squib as his dharna, given that this civil obligation is anyhow anathema to those whose contributions would make a serious difference to the national exchequer. The TIP’s “civil disobedience” is as big a farce as Qadri’s “revolution,” with some of his aides invoking the Bolshevik experience.
The Sharif government may be deeply flawed at any number of levels, but its current adversaries have little to commend them either.