Imran Khan is once again his usual self, determined to pursue his politics of agitation from the second week of August on a one-point agenda to remove Nawaz Sharif for his alleged corruption. Is this going to be an exercise to cleanse Pakistan of corruption or is it a tactic to capture power through the back door by creating pressure and instability? More to the point, is street agitation the right approach in combating corruption or would it not be advisable to work towards strengthening state institutions, like the judiciary, parliament, NAB and others so that they can act as deterrents against corruption.
It is surprising that Imran Khan’s disdain and distrust in state institutions is so intense that he has no faith in them unless these are tailormade. His record of attending parliament is discouraging. There is little interest in introducing new legislation or participating in issues of foreign or security policies by his party. By neglecting parliament and its committees and not taking the budget session seriously, an attitude that is no better than the other political parties is reflected. All one hears is a tirade against the prime minister’s person and his alleged corruption. Is it not ironic that with this indifference towards parliament, he repeatedly exhorts Nawaz Sharif and the ruling party to emulate the high principles of British parliamentary traditions! Surely this is good advice but Khan also needs to learn a lot from Britain’s practices and traditions. The British prime minister attends parliament as a sacred obligation and this is how she demonstrates her respect for parliament and commitment to democracy. If the opposition has serious disagreements on policy or conduct of members, these are aired in parliament and not on the streets. Public demonstrations do take place on major issues that are of critical importance, such as opposition to the Iraq war, but are never meant to sabotage the system or derail it.
Politicians, while strategising their opposition, should not ignore the objective conditions prevailing in Pakistan. Democracy is very fragile, governance is weak and the structure of political parties is not fully democratic. More importantly, imbalance between the civil and military continues to move in favour of the latter as political parties keep feuding and neglecting governance. Consequently, the military’s influence in foreign and domestic policies keeps increasing and democracy suffers. There is always a lingering fear that if the dharna gets too disruptive, the military may intervene. It is perhaps for this reason that the PPP and some other parties have chosen to stay away from street agitation.
Although the voting pattern in Azad Jammu and Kashmir differs from the rest of Pakistan where generally the electorate prefers to vote for the party in power at the federal level, nonetheless the PTI’s showing in the elections was highly disappointing. It only managed to win two seats. In Karachi where the party was earlier showing promise fared poorly in the last local bodies elections reflecting a steep fall. All this indicates that Khan’s political strategy needs to be reviewed to gain electoral support.
Even in the event that he does manage to destabilise the government to a point where Nawaz Sharif is compelled to resign and his party is miraculously able to form the government, the opposition will adopt the same tactics to keep his government paralysed — a replay of the 1990s. The 1990s remind me of how civilian governments were dismissed by the president on prodding by the establishment on charges of corruption and it made not an iota of difference in reducing it. On the contrary, had the system been allowed to continue and not disrupted by coups and manipulation by a core of rejected politicians and self-seeking bureaucrats, Pakistan’s political infrastructure would have been far more robust. We also need to draw lessons from the Indian experience. The last Congress government was perhaps one of the weakest in terms of performance and several of its members had a soiled reputation yet it was allowed to complete its term. At the end, the people’s verdict was unequivocal. They rejected the party by a convincing the majority and democracy was strengthened.
This is not to imply that Imran’s crusade against corruption is not laudable. Certainly he has broken new ground and should continue with the same zeal, but it has to be channelled through institutions and not on the streets. Moreover, a lot more discretion needs to be exercised in the language used while accusing political rivals. Calling political opponents criminals and thieves on the basis of one’s own judgment lowers the prestige and respect of politicians as a whole in the eyes of the public. In a country where democracy is in a nascent stage, this could be very damaging and music for the ears of those in the establishment who have never reconciled to politicians being in power. Some in the media, too, have been encouraged to make outrageous remarks about politicians and the political process, as though there is a shortcut to democratic maturity or that progress only awaits a messiah. We do need a new kind of politics that is more inclusive and is structured around the shared values that the Quaid and our founding fathers had visualised. In the era that Pakistan is passing through, where spirits are generally low and challenges daunting, we need more mature, sensible and lasting solutions that will heal society and maximise the potential of our nation. Furthermore, no political move can be successful if it does not factor in the external environment that the country is facing. Tensions with India remain high and dialogue is frozen. We have yet to build trust and confidence with Afghanistan while the Taliban insurgency goes on unabated. Unfortunately, with Iran, too, we have not fully earned its confidence. While foreign policy is the responsibility of the party in power, it is greatly influenced by the domestic situation. Imran Khan would be well advised to factor in these external and domestic realities before he launches his protest movement.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 27th, 2016.