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A hazardous route to change

September 22, 2016


AS the baton-waving youth contingents of PTI and PML-N prepare themselves for a showdown in or around Raiwind on Sept 30, the people have reason to start worrying about the country’s drift on a hazardous course.

A peaceful, orderly march by PTI supporters to Raiwind and even an indefinite dharna close to the prime minister’s residence will not set the Ravi on fire. The prime minister is not duty-bound to play host to unwelcome visitors. He will be a favourite to win the battle of attrition if he stays put in Islamabad and leaves the demonstrators to deal with their frustration as best as they can.

However, the agitation until PTI has recovered all the looted wealth, as proclaimed by Imran Khan, might not remain peaceful. PTI and PML-N youth forces have so far displayed only dandas and their zeal for push-ups, but their access to fire-arms cannot be ruled out. Each side says it is determined to foil the other party’s mischief but when tensions run high, especially if there is an accidental casualty, the danger of a major clash becomes quite real.

That will help neither PTI nor PML-N, and it is not clear whether the third party is ready to reap the benefit of a chaos that cannot be described as unintended.

What, after all, is the objective of the Raiwind march? If the idea is securing only Nawaz Sharif’s ousting the battlefields are elsewhere ie parliament, the Election Commission and the judiciary. Whatever happens at Raiwind, it will not facilitate victory at these forums and this demonstration will be written down only as a bid to overthrow the Nawaz Sharif government.

One should not be surprised if PTI policymakers have their eyes on a replay of the 1977 overthrow of Bhutto.

Regardless of the weight of Imran Khan’s charges against Nawaz Sharif, from manipulation in the 2013 elections to the Panama leaks and poor governance, he is within his rights, like any other political party, to ask the government to resign so that the people can elect their rulers afresh. He has two options — to launch a non-violent campaign to force the government to hold a general election before 2018, or to use street power to create a situation in which the government cannot function and a third party decides the issue by force. The PTI has obviously chosen the second course.

For reasons that are pretty obvious, the PTI challenge to the government constitutes a minority group’s effort to overthrow it. Organised minorities have sometimes succeeded in bringing about regime changes, even revolutions, if certain helpful factors are available. These factors include: majority or near-majority public support to the challengers, the regime’s loosening grip on instruments of coercion and the decision of the armed forces to agree to change or at least to stay neutral.

One should not be surprised if PTI policymakers have their eyes on a replay of the 1977 overthrow of Bhutto. That anti-government campaign was also conducted by a small though well-heeled group. The majority of the people might have been disillusioned with Bhutto, but they had not given up on him. A critical factor was that the PPP’s loss of moral ground had sapped the people’s will to act in its favour. More significantly, Bhutto had lost control over the instruments of power. Thus the 1977 agitation paved the way for the military takeover, and the judiciary was only too glad to have its revenge. It used allegations about PPP’s decision to arm its cadres as one of the grounds to justify the Zia coup. One wonders as to what it would have said about present-day parties’ plans to raise their militias.

The political scenario today is far more different. The people have many grievances against the government but there is no evidence that they will welcome an untimely change. The regime may have failed to offer good governance but that does not mean any pretender can seize the throne without presenting a workable alternative. Besides the government retains its grip over the instruments of coercion and has gotten away with serious blunders, such as the Model Town killings.

If there are elements in PTI or any other party who are laying their bets on a military intervention they should be ready for disappointment. The military should not be expected to rescue any challengers at the risk of losing its popularity at home and its goodwill abroad. Besides, military interventions in Pakistan have been subject to the law of diminishing returns. Each military ruler has been less popular than his predecessor. Times have changed. The world has moved beyond the age of military rulers. No politician in Pakistan should forget Bizenjo’s warning to fellow detainees in Hyderabad jail in 1977, most of whom preferred the military to Bhutto, that the military never intervened on anybody else’s behalf; if it seized power it did so for itself. Those craving for a repeat of 1977 will not be allowed to edit the script.

It is perhaps time for all politicians to return to the basics of democratic politics. The ruling party must learn to avoid the tyranny of majoritarian rule. Only by living within the parameters of the Constitution and giving the opposition its due share in governance will it fulfil its duty of moving the country towards participatory democracy. The opposition parties are not expected to abandon their efforts to capture power, but they must do so by winning over the public to their agenda for

common citizens’ progress and prosperity — for peace and human dignity. That way demands a mature political discourse (and not merely incendiary slogan-mongering), political education of the masses, democratic organisation of political parties, and a bottom-up approach to public mobilisation.

The thought that, throughout the hullabaloo about corrupt or illegitimate rulers, the people have been offered little to improve their knowledge and practice of democratic politics is a chilling indictment of the adventurers in command of the political stage today. The people deserve better from both sides of the barricade.

Published in Dawn September 22nd, 2016