Eschewing politics

September 24, 2019


The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

THE JUI-F aims to overthrow the PTI regime in October by crippling Islamabad. October was the key month in Russian and Chinese revolutions too. But the JUI-F’s aim shares little else with those epic events.

Public protest is justified for removing unelected regimes like those of the Russian czars. Concerns do abound about the 2018 polls. The European Union election mission report flags the dubious role of unelected institutions in barring Nawaz Sharif for life and horse-trading. But till these concerns are validated in a proper inquiry, demanding the PTI’s removal is wrong. Its huge misrule too does not justify it. The JUI-F’s likely use of faith is dicey too. Since moral logic won’t sway the party (although carrot or stick may), one must analyse its chances of success if it goes ahead, based on history’s lessons.

Our history is replete with abrupt tenure ends. These befell heads of states with formal powers. They befell all substantive and most dummy prime ministers, with the rest of the prime ministers being fill-ins for removed heads of government. The dizzyingly varied means included death (once), murder (twice), dubious firing by the head of state (six times), forced resignation (eight times), weak court verdicts (twice), martial law (four times), shady assembly vote (twice) and street protest (once).

Nawaz Sharif holds the dubious record for being removed via four means, while surviving two others (street protest in 2014 and presidential/court removal in 1997) and playing key roles in removing other prime ministers thrice, including Mohammad Khan Junejo and Benazir Bhutto.

The short tenures of civilian façades show the futility of ploys.

Regime-wise, the ones connected to the army lasted the longest, then assemblies from largely fair polls, with rigged civilian set-ups in the 1950s and 1990s naturally being the last. Unelected powers are seen as having forced most abrupt ends, their frequency and varied ways reflecting our political instability and its destructive creativity. Protests played key roles only against Gen Ayub and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. But it is likely that the deep state tacitly supported even those protests — in any case, it was clearly the final arbiter. Murder, army coup and firing by the president are unlikely now, leaving it with forced departures, protests, assembly votes and court verdicts as tools. Can it invent new ones?

What does this history tell us about the PTI’s chances? Seen as a civilian façade by many, its longevity is often viewed as iffy and being dependent on establishment support as even protests have only succeeded with its nod. Some say the maulana has strong backers. But why would a regime that has been installed with much effort, it is alleged, be removed so soon? In the past, protégés have been fired when they have turned too prickly, or when they lost their majority, or were too inept. Only the last one applies in the current scenario. There has been an attempt to fill that gap by intervening in civilian tasks. But lesser ministries and provinces are still with the PTI. Is there a realisation by the powers that be that their own public image may be taking a hit?

Some observers have also asked why allow the risky tactic of letting charged madressah students disturb Islamabad’s idyllic serenity when parties (GDA, BAP, etc) could be asked to change loyalties.

Finally, there is the issue of concocting a workable set-up later. There has been conjecture that there may be an in-party change with Shah Mehmood Qureshi becoming the prime minister. But, if this came to pass, could he keep the chaotic and divided PTI intact given his tiff with Jehangir Tareen, the PTI’s ATM and driver? A forced out and furious Imran Khan may also be tough to handle.

There have also been rumours of a national government. However, it is clear that a national set-up with the opposition in it could be less pliable and a snake pit with constant brawls. Given these hurdles, dragging along the burden of an inept façade still popular with the naïve sections of the middle class may yet be seen as the best option.

The rigged 2003 house was helped to complete its term. But at that time, a long-serving general-president deeply averse to both the PPP and PML-N gave the continuity and push for that. Whether the same aversion can do so informally now is unclear.

The short tenures and misrule of civilian façades show the futility of outside interference and ploys. Past experience has shown that elected regimes still do better — despite their own follies — than the sorry products of tricks. So the best policy for unelected players is to eschew politics and let a natural majority emerge in-house or via fair polls. Had this wisdom been in place, we would not have seen two dozen leaders removed forcibly via seven devious tactics in 70 years.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2019