Cornered tigers?

May 21, 2019


The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan think tank.
The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan think tank.

FACING imminent exit from the 1992 World Cup, Imran Khan spurred his team to cup victory through his famous “cornered tigers” speech. Today too, his PTI team is cornered, and is struggling to govern properly. It competes closely with Benazir Bhutto’s first era for the title of our most incompetent set-up ever.

To be fair, Benazir was only in her early 30s. Imran is in his late 60s and has the Punjab setup and the kingmakers with him, unlike her. The PML-N created the current economic mess. But the PTI has made it and other matters worse. The opposition teams are haranguing it, the crowd is booing and the infamous umpire is reportedly miffed too.

Can Imran rally his PTI team to bounce back as cornered tigers now too to deliver on the tabdeeli promises or at least complete its term? The prognosis is grimmer today and the first option can be virtually dismissed. Imran was an ace player and captain and the team boasted other aces too.

Today, Imran himself is a novice in this much tougher job and his team and even its bench strength resemble toothless tigers. Imran is now importing technocratic players for almost all key posts. But the importees can’t blend into a cohesive team to deliver on the PTI’s agenda. Imran seems marginalised and the PTI members even more so in the new cabinet.

Can Imran rally his PTI team to bounce back to deliver on its promises?

The more realistic issue then is whether the PTI can even complete its term. Amazingly, just within nine months, even some of its allied pundits are expressing doubts here. The opposition is threatening agitation after Eid. It is certainly the opposition’s right to push peacefully for an inquiry about the credibility of the flawed 2018 polls or highlight the government’s failures via peaceful street events. But trying to dislodge a regime based on performance within a year is absurd even by Pakistani politics norms, and it should be opposed. The opposition’s own divisions, poor track record and legal woes also call into question their motivations and chances of success.

To evidentially view the government’s survival chances, one must review the decade of the 1990s which saw many premature demises of regimes elected via dubious polls allegedly rigged by the deep state. All four regimes then were removed, not by opposition’s agitation, but via Article 58(2)(b) and a military coup over policy tussles. But the PTI’s weak performance will make it even more unlikely to challenge it. It could still incur the axe if its performance falls further. However, while the technocrats brought in may not deliver tabdeeli, they will at least ward off a governance meltdown. Thus, the technocratic infusion can be seen as an attempt by the establishment to resuscitate the regime and send out a signal of support. This then leaves an alliance split as the main PTI threat. But even here the establishment acts as glue, as most government allies are seen to follow its dictates.

Thus, the PTI faces no major threat of early removal unless the new team fails badly. Still, the fact that it hasn’t been able to deliver on its promise of change so far is not mainly an indictment of the PTI but more so of the imagination and capacity of sections of the establishment that, for long, have seen themselves as the final arbiter of politics even though they have neither the capacity nor the legitimacy to do so.

One failed governance experiment after another has been produced over the decades. Yet there is no end to such tricks. Governance refers to the structures of joint decision-making and implementation in a society. The more cohesive a society, the better is its governance. Societies like ours have deep horizontal (race, ethnicity and faith) and vertical (class and caste) axes of divisions which structurally cause poor governance.

Beyond these globally common axes, we have a third artificial axis of division — the institutional one. Democracy globally is the best antidote for healing the two natural axes of divisions and attaining better governance. But in Pakistan, this third axis is perceived as hindering the application of this antidote to create more political instability.

This third axis has no plans to exit politics. But as this latest attempt to control politics fails to deliver too, one is reminded of a nursery rhyme that aptly depicts our current political mess: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;/ Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;/ All the king(maker)’s horses and all the king(maker)’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

The gods of fate have a wicked sense of humor. When they want to harm someone, they make their dreams come true — but then quickly turn them into nightmares. Much the same is happening where the establishment is concerned.

The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan think tank.

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2019