IMRAN Khan seems to be doing everything that he once claimed he was fighting against, including political horse-trading that he had earlier condemned as anathema to democracy. A new wave of arrests has given rise to allegations that his government is carrying out a political witch-hunt. Most ominous is the shrinking space for freedom of expression.
Few leaders have seen such a steep fall from a high pedestal within months of coming to power. A panic-stricken prime minister seems to have lost all sense of proportion. His most recent harangue in the National Assembly and his midnight address to the nation leave one wondering about his capabilities when it comes to navigating the country through the present financial and political morass. It’s a Greek tragedy unfolding.
It was reminiscent of the sordid game that has long plagued Pakistani politics when the prime minister recently met some opposition legislators reportedly willing to cross the floor. A federal minister claims there were many more from Punjab waiting in line to shift their political allegiance.
Khan’s ‘Wasim Akram-plus’ seems to have finally blossomed into a fine craftsman engineering defections within the opposition ranks. Meanwhile, a dexterous provincial governor through a ‘magic wand’ is said to have won enough numbers to change the PPP government in Sindh. “It’s a matter of time when the PTI will form the government in the province,” boasted a federal minister.
Neither horse-trading nor political witch-hunts can provide stability to the government.
What was unholy in the past has now been declared kosher under the rule of a self-proclaimed crusader against corruption. It’s certainly not awakening conscience that compels the opposition members to revolt against their ‘corrupt’ party leaders.
Those of us who are familiar with our sleazy political culture know well how political engineering is done. There is no difference between the infamous ‘Changa Manga’ episode and the ‘Banigala’ meeting though the mechanics may vary. It is so pathetic to see PTI ministers hailing the turncoats selling their political loyalty.
It is not opportunism or monetary incentive alone that lures opposition members to the ruling party; security agencies too are often instrumental in securing defections. Their footprint has been too obvious in the latest political manoeuvring. The main objective is to prop up a weak coalition in the face of an increasingly aggressive opposition.
Although last week’s gathering of opposition parties has not been able to come up with any concrete plan that could threaten the government, it has pressed the panic button in PTI ranks. The smooth passage of the budget has not helped calm Khan’s anxiety.
There was nothing in his concluding speech at the budget session of the National Assembly that could raise public confidence in the government trying to deal with the worst financial crisis the country has faced in recent times. It was the same old talk of going after ‘thieves who left the country badly in debt’. In fact, Khan’s threats of fixing the opposition has made the credibility of the ongoing accountability more questionable.
Most disconcerting is the arrest of a senior opposition MNA for allegedly carrying a large quantity of heroin.
He has also been charged for his alleged association with some banned sectarian groups. Shocking indeed. The timing of the arrest also makes the case more dubious. It reminds us of instances when political leaders were booked for ‘stealing buffalos’. Of course, drug charges are much more serious and under Pakistani law carry the death penalty. It is the first case of its kind involving a senior political leader.
Although the ANF comes under the federal government, much of its staff comes from the army and is headed by a major general. Notwithstanding whether or not the charges are credible, the arrest of a senior political leader may drag the institution into controversy. It’s not good for the image of the security establishment that is already in the eye of the storm for the increasingly high political profile of its leadership and its media wing.
Equally disturbing is the unannounced censorship of the media and growing restrictions on freedom of expression. Taking TV programmes off air without providing a sound reason illustrates the stifling of dissenting voices. Intriguingly, TV channels are not supposed to telecast interviews of detained political leaders facing graft charges while there is no bar on them under the law to speak in parliament.
Such draconian measures do not bode well for the democratic process. It is a sign of the government’s weakness and exposes its lack of confidence in handling the opposition. While in opposition, Imran Khan had benefited most from the free media but now he is afraid of it.
More troubling is that the government maintains it has nothing to do with the press curbs. Irrespective of who is doing it, it is ultimately the responsibility of the government to ensure media freedom. It is extremely dangerous to leave it to security agencies to run the affairs of the state.
One lesson of history that Khan should have learnt is that neither horse-trading nor political witch-hunts can provide stability to the government. It is a siege mentality that he needs to break for his own good. Facing a vociferous opposition is also part of the democratic political process.
It is apparent that the opposition is neither in a position nor is seeking to overthrow the government. But by his confrontational politics, the prime minister has made his government extremely unstable and is making it increasingly dependent on security agencies.
These are indeed extremely difficult times for the country that is facing serious financial crises and internal and external security challenges. Worsening political instability could make it more difficult to meet these challenges. Instead of resorting to political gamesmanship for short-term gains, the government needs to keep in view the country’s long-term interests.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2019