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The limits of populism

Updated November 26, 2014


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE crowd at his rallies keeps getting bigger and Imran Khan’s tenor angrier and harsher. He keeps the audience enthralled by his relentless attack on the government that has failed to deliver. There is surely a groundswell of public support for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) revealing a rising populist backlash against a dormant and a self-serving system. The party is seen as a catalyst for change despite chips of the old block sharing the stage with the harbinger of ‘Naya Pakistan’.

Imran Khan is all poised to launch what he describes as the “final war”. He says he has reached the threshold of his patience and that he cannot wait any longer. He has set Nov 30 as D-Day for the storming of the citadel. This will be his second attempt over the last three months to force the government to surrender.

His confidence seems to have been bolstered by the huge public response to his recent rallies across Punjab that has become the main political battleground. An apparent division within the powerful civilian bureaucratic establishment has added to his buoyancy. But can the PTI succeed in what it has so far failed to achieve during its protracted sit-in? Without Tahirul Qadri’s dedicated followers, the staying power of the largely young and middle-class supporters of the PTI remains doubtful.

Surely, populism and the politics of agitation have their own limitations. It is one thing to draw large crowds at rallies and quite another to sustain the momentum and bring down an elected government, however inept it may be. One expected Imran Khan to have learnt this lesson from the experience of the previous march when the entire parliament across the divide stood up to defend itself against the joint assault launched by the PTI-PAT combo.

It is one thing to draw large crowds at rallies and quite another to sustain the momentum.

The power matrix does not seem to have changed much despite the party’s rallies drawing larger crowds. The only thing that has changed is that the party has lost its only ally with Qadri deciding to take a break from his quest for revolution. Being a shrewd operator, the cleric left the field after sensing there was no hope of a military intervention to help his cause. With no support from any other political party, the PTI is left all alone to fight the “final war”.

It is not clear at all what the party really wants to achieve from its exclusive politics of agitation. By declaring Nov 30 as the “final war”, Imran Khan has further got himself into a bind. So what’s next if the march does not deliver? Does he really believe that he can bring down the entire system by assembling a large crowd — and to what end?

Even though most of the PTI’s demands for electoral reforms may be valid and are also supported by most political parties, the party’s decision to stay out of parliament has damaged its cause. Its persistence with the policy of mindless agitation has caused it to lose a good opportunity to achieve consensus on an independent inquiry into the alleged vote fraud in the last elections and bring in electoral reforms.

It may be true that the government’s own intransigence and hubris have been a factor in the deadlock, but the PTI’s insistence on the demand for the prime minister to step down has not helped resolve the crisis either. Now Imran Khan himself admits that they were close to reaching an agreement on five out of six points. He has also backtracked on the prime minister’s resignation issue.

But the realisation has come too late in the day. By taking a rigid position the PTI has allowed the government to renege. The PTI leaders are certainly living in a make-believe world if they think that change can be brought about merely by empty rhetoric atop containers.

In the meanwhile, there is total confusion over what the party really stands for. It is good to talk about the rule of law, eliminating corruption and untainted democracy. For sure, Imran Khan has motivated the country’s large youth population and urban middle classes. Large participation by women in the PTI’s rallies is an encouraging phenomenon in the country’s politics.

But the party lacks clarity on how it will bring about the promised change. Agitation and abusive language used against rivals and those not agreeing with the views of the party is certainly not the way of a democratic culture of tolerance and healthy political debate. It is not very promising to see a growing number of political opportunists occupying the container on D-Chowk.

While Sheikh Rashid has been a permanent fixture on the party stage spewing vitriol on anyone and everyone, it is amusing to now see retired Brig Ijaz Shah by the side of Imran Khan wearing party colours. The former chief of the Intelligence Bureau was believed to be the man responsible for manipulating the 2002 elections. I remember doing an investigative report on how those elections were fixed. Having such people in leadership is certainly not expected from a party that claims it is fighting to change the political culture.

Its politics of permanent agitation has diverted the party’s attention from providing effective administration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which it rules. It could have set a great example of good governance by focusing on the affairs of the province rather than have the chief minister spend time on the container.

It is back to the sealing of the capital by containers as the administration braces to deal with the Nov 30 march. With the growing mass following the PTI, the party will surely be able to draw a large crowd. But the main concern is about where this politics of confrontation will lead. Any use of force will lead to more violence. It is a matter for both the PTI and the government to ponder.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2014