Parallel politics

Published August 20, 2014

It may have made slightly more sense had the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf announced the resignation of its elected representatives from all assemblies but one before Imran Khan embarked on his motorised ‘azadi 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 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 have produced the largest effect. But it would also have crystallised 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 seriously be 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.

In some ways, Khan and Qadri are not too different from those they seek to displace

The fact that Imran Khan’s dharna in Islamabad has reportedly attracted only a small fraction 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’ mobilisation by Canada-based televangelist Tahirul Qadri has been marginally more impressive, but that too fell far short 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 Khan 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.

Khan 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 PPP would fare better after having been reduced to a largely Sindh-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 seem to want elections. The panacea he envisages is a national government 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 ISI.

He added that he sought neither a military dictatorship nor a theocracy — what grabbed him was the idea of a democracy along the lines it is practised in the US, Canada, Britain and the European Union.

One can only wonder whether the founder of Minhajul Quran International, whose website prominently features testimonials from the likes of Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and several other former prime ministers, properly realises 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 acolytes, then it is 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.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2014


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