Desperately seeking U-Turn By Najam Sethi

35

Pakistan is at a dangerous impasse, the manifestations of which are plain.

The economy has crumbled. This is partly due to blundering government policies and anti-Covid U-Turns. But it is also because of political uncertainty following the engineered ouster of Nawaz Sharif, a popular PMLN prime minister, and the planned selection of Imran Khan, who has fast become unpopular.

The PTI government is immovable. It refuses to recognize one critical fact: a pre-election strategy of accusing rival political leaders and parties of corruption in government cannot be substituted for a post-election strategy of delivering manifesto pledges to improve the lives of citizens.

The PDM opposition is irresistible. The two mainstream parties, PPP and PMLN, have eschewed their adversarial roles to band together in the face of a relentless drive by the PTI to wipe them off the face of the political landscape and create one-party rule. Unprecedentedly too, the JUI has joined hands with them to create a solid mass of left, centre and right wing forces to resist the PTI.

An irresistible force is going to clash with an immovable object.

Meanwhile, the organs of the state that are supposed to avow political neutrality are fast losing their credibility in the eyes of the people. The Miltablishment leadership is rightly accused of manipulating elections and putting personal considerations above national interests. The judiciary, which promised a revolutionary transformation of the justice system during the Lawyers Movement a decade ago, has, thanks to miscarriage by ex-CJPs Saqib Nisar and Asif Khosa, reduced itself to a servile handmaiden of the very Miltablishment against which it originally revolted. The civil bureaucracy, which once proudly billed itself as the steel frame holding together state and society, is a pale shadow of itself. It trembles at the prospect of taking decisions and is administratively impotent.

Sub-nationalisms are on the rise. Religion inspired terrorism has not abated. The threat from Modi’s India is more real than ever before. Pakistan’s foreign friends are few and far between, those like Saudi Arabia are sulking.

In this state of existential national crisis, what is the way forward?

A common refrain is that no party or group is talking about finding solutions; that each is wont to blame the other for all our woes; that each wants to be in office for the sake of it and no one has a plan of action to forge a dynamic and sustainable way ahead out of these crises.

The problem with this hand wringing is that it is both self-serving and self-deceiving. It puts a premium on some sort of national consensus about solutions even as it refuses to recognize the necessary conditions for such a consensus. The Miltablishment has ruled directly for over half the life of independent Pakistan and indirectly for the rest of the time. It has “managed” elections and selected prime ministers, then sabotaged and overthrown them. It has experimented with one unit, five units, four units and is now toying with the idea of six units. Time and again, it has subverted the notion of a constitutional democracy with an independent judiciary and free media. It has diagnosed “corruption” of politicians as Pakistan’s main malady even as it has refused to be accountable for its own corruptions and misdemeanors. Thus distorted, the garrison state has become alien from and hostile to civil society. Under the circumstances, the only national consensus possible is one in which all organs and stakeholders of state and society perform their roles and functions strictly as defined and laid out in the consensual constitution of 1973.

In recognition of the present situational dilemma, voices are being raised for a national dialogue in search of the way forward by ending the politics of victimization and elimination of political leaders and parties. One such voice is that of Shahbaz Sharif. But Imran Khan has vowed to grind such “crooks” into the ground instead of dialoguing with them. The notion of a loyal opposition-government in waiting via free and fair elections as decreed by the Constitution is alien to him. Another idea is to get the superior judiciary involved in such an exercise. But this is a non-starter since the institution is perceived to be mired in electoral malpractices and politically partisan judgments.

This has left the opposition parties with no option but to band together and try to heave Imran Khan out of office. Generally speaking, any street movement should not pose serious problems to a fairly elected and popular government as demonstrated by the failed dharnas of Imran Khan against Nawaz Sharif’s government not so long ago. But the boot is on the other foot today: the PTI government and its Miltablishment props are hugely unpopular while the opposition leaders are getting more strident by the day.

The PTI government is resorting to repressive measures. This is inflaming the opposition. A clash of passions is inevitable. Unless the Miltablishment, which consciously steered the country into this cul de sac, takes a timely U-Turn, we are doomed.