EVEN the year of the once-in-a-century pandemic did not overshadow politics in Pakistan. While the world was watching the mysterious virus envelope Wuhan, we were too distracted by the feverish race to pass the legislation for the chief’s extension, and as the rest of the world grappled with the second wave and the vaccine, the homeland was busy focussing on the opposition, a long march and possible resignations.
If nothing else, 2020 has put paid to the notion that the inhabitants of the Constitution Avenue can breathe easy if they share a non-confrontational relationship with the natives of Rawalpindi. Despite all assertions to the contrary from the government (and occasionally the uniformed ones) there were few moments of tranquillity for the prime minister and his government. And part of this was due to the constant conjecture and analysis about the civil-military relationship, which, in public conversation, lurched from the good to the bad.
If it was good, it was because the PTI government was incompetent, allowing the military to increase its footprint. And if it was bad, it was due to the incompetence (with PTI, this was a constant) or poor choices for important slots. Nonetheless, whether the government and the military were lovey-dovey or at logger heads, apparently the latter only had one solution – send the government home. Like Desi parents who feel their child’s problem will be sorted out once he or she is married, the military, if local analyses are to be believed, can also see no further than a dismissal to all governance problems.
Regardless of where the truth lies, the only concrete conclusion is that whether a government gets along with Pindi (as PTI does to some extent) or it doesn’t (as was obvious in the case of the PPP and the Noon), the predictions of its departure are the only constant. Even the extension brouhaha, which revealed the one page all the parliamentarians were on, did not abate these rumours – the Noon’s acquiescence was seen as evidence of its quick return to power in place of PTI which bungled up the extension and was not delivering.
The ruling party was more under pressure owing to its own shortcomings rather than anything done by any other entity.
However, the legislation did allow the government to crow over the docility of the opposition (remember the boot in a talk show!), but before this could go far, the coronavirus enveloped us all. It is perhaps the most defining theme that ran through 2020, inside and outside the country, as governments the world over tried to deal with it. Pakistan and PTI were no different. But the reprieve it provided the government was not much for it had to face much criticism of its handling of the first wave of the virus from the opposition, the doctors and the media.
Behind the closed doors of the NCOC, the federal and provincial governments as well as the military worked well together, with the latter providing crucial logistical support. It was a forum that worked with consensus, beyond party and institutional lines, it seems. Outside, however, the usual chaos ruled.
The federal government was criticised for its reluctance to impose lockdown, for the prime minister’s multiple statements on corona and for its inability to procure the needed equipment, as the PPP ran rings around it in the television world. The panic over the virus – despite the polarisation – did keep the rumours of an impending departure at bay, though it did not afford the government any breathing space as it struggled to control the spread and to fight allegations of ineptness in the handling of the pandemic.
That the first wave ended without causing as much damage as had been expected was celebrated to some extent. Indeed, by the second wave, the pandemic garnered little interest from all concerned and this is partly due to how the first passed.
But if the pandemic and its handling was a major theme of 2020, PTI’s governance was another. In this second category, there were four main issues which kept recurring through the year and will come to define the government’s term.
The first is how even in these chaotic times, the prime minister found time to make yet more changes to his team – even changing his health minister as the pandemic raged in the country.
In fact, official and unofficial changes to the cabinet kept coming unabated. In April, it was the spat with Jahangir Tareen and his rather public removal from the agriculture taskforce, days after the sugar inquiry report came out; within weeks came the change in information as Firdous Ashiq Awan, the second information face, was replaced by Shibli Faraz and Asim Saleem Bajwa, and, in August, Zafar Mirza and Tania Aidrus dropped out. Just recently came the shuffles at the ministries of interior and railways. In between, Asim Bajwa washed his hands off information once the story about his family’s assets abroad broke.
It is not just that the changes were abrupt and at times inexplicable. Indeed, the government was rarely able to explain why some were made. Perhaps, if bets were to be made, one could safely wager that the second half of the government’s term will be just as much of a rollercoaster as the first half was. The lack of trust the PM has in his party people and his temperament will keep the musical chairs going. And this is especially true of information; a hard job for any government. The polarisation will keep the prime minister constantly worried about the poor representation of PTI’s ‘achievements’ in the media and the sword will fall on those managing information.
This of course is linked to the PTI’s inability to manage inflation. The spiralling prices of food items and the government’s inability to control them kept it on the back foot the entire year – even after its successful handling of the pandemic’s first wave (despite the many initial hiccups such as the fiasco at the Iran border or the delay in announcing lockdowns). Inflation lent much credence to the opposition’s narrative of incompetence and the failure of the ‘military’s experiment’. And with the expected revival of the IMF programme and the accompanying hike of electricity prices, chances are this is the issue which will be PTI’s biggest burden as its term nears completion.
Third, the PTI government remained averse to the parliament, preferring to conduct its business through ordinances. Whenever and wherever possible, progressive laws or controversial ones, it used the president’s powers to pass ordinances. The CPEC authority or the recent changes in the rape law are cases in point. Even at the provincial level, it behaves in a similar fashion as Punjab also makes do with ordinances whenever it gets the chance.
PTI’s excuse, of course, was the polarisation and the absence of a majority in the Senate. However, this excuse is not valid all the time – the CPEC authority ordinance has been extended by parliament itself more than once.
Having said that, by the time the PDM came into being, the government had simply stopped trying to reach out to the opposition. It just stopped trying to give any importance to parliament. And once the Senate elections are over, the PTI will have lost its excuse of an intransigent opposition, but will it be able to change itself? Such habits – as history tells us – are hard to kick.
And, finally, the fourth burden which the PTI will carry for long, though it may not prove critical come election time, is its worsening record on rights, especially freedom of expression. This was yet another running theme of 2020. Sadly, this is not an area in which any political party has a good track record in its first term in power, and the PTI seems to be treading the beaten path.
The year began with the arrest of a handful of protestors in Islamabad, who were charged with sedition and sent to jail against considerable public outrage. They were released after a few days and a barrage of criticism, but the succeeding months have not seen any improvement – from mysterious disappearances in the heart of Islamabad to constant complaints of censorship and targeting of student activists and parliamentarians, as well as the long imprisonment of a media magnate, the year has been dotted with such unfortunate incidents.
Even as these lines were being written at the fag end of the year, an elected parliamentarian was under arrest. The rules being framed under the electronics crimes act have drawn sharp criticism from rights activists at home and the social media companies. Random and short-lived attempts to ban games and social media platforms reveal confusion or whim on the part of the government while accountability continues to be coloured by allegations of vindictiveness.
And in the midst of all this, the PTI seems oblivious to the impact of it all on society and itself. At times, publicly, and at times privately, some of its members defended these draconian measures with vigour, while others expressed their helplessness. Hence, there are moments when it is hard to tell who is leading these efforts, but this is not enough to deflect the blame.
And, while all this was happening, the prime minister chose to insist that the media was free – freer than Britain’s, for example – while admitting that he did not know who was behind the disappearances of people from Islamabad. The man and the party do not seem to realise that this will haunt the PTI for years to come. Their denials do not find many listeners.
Published in Dawn on January 1, 2020, as part of a special supplement – YEARENDER 2020