Winds of change

Published January 25, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE PML-N has a spring in their feet, Omicron and the freezing rains notwithstanding. The PPP is sitting pretty as always and the PTI is a bit antsy. The statements and bluster of government officials aside, it seemed the party was already looking over its shoulder and Khan’s speech on Sunday was enough to silence all doubting Thomases who were sceptical of the rumours of troubles.

Indeed, Khan’s warning during his interaction with Pakistani citizens that he would prove more dangerous in opposition if ousted set off fiery discussions on a cold Sunday evening. Apart from Khan’s incomparable ability to create trouble for himself, it is hard to explain why he said what he did. Even if there is a real and imminent threat, why would a government admit to it? But then, it’s Imran Khan. Brevity and discretion are words not found in his dictionary.

And how much can one moan, groan and blast the prime minister’s verbal faux pas — there have just been too many since the 2018 elections.

But between his threats and the Noonies’ new-found confidence, the recent rumours raise questions about civil-military relations. (For those wondering, what the rumours are, it is being said the PPP and the PML-N will oust Khan through a no-confidence move, provided there is agreement on when the elections are to be called. It is also being said that this no-confidence has been blessed by the powers that be.)

It is one thing to speak of guarantees and quite another to ensure them.

In a way, if this change takes place, it would be meaningful progress in the civil-military balance — that the military was compelled to negotiate with the very individuals it had made an effort to sideline in politics, abandoning those it had embraced in the process. For in the past, when such realignments took place, it was usually after at least one of the two sides had had a change of face which preceded the change of heart. Ziaul Haq departed from the scene before Benazir Bhutto assumed power and Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan coincided with Pervez Musharraf’s replacement with Ashfaq Kayani as chief of army staff.

However, at present, the cast of characters remains the same. And this is a step forward indeed. But what has changed, some would point out, is that the ‘experiment’ has gone ‘so’ wrong and the crisis is ‘so’ urgent that an about-turn is the only policy option left.

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But what will this major shift lead to? If there is a new set-up and a switch in the parties inhabiting the offices on Constitution Avenue, it would still have come about after accepting the primacy of the military in politics — as it did in 2007, which perhaps we realised in hindsight. For, as in 2007, a change, right now, will simply underline that power can only be won through some sort of a negotiation with the powers that be in Pindi. And when change comes through negotiations, it is rarely followed by a complete withdrawal of the military from politics. This is something the PML-N will have to contend with; it’s easier to say the party wants no interference and an implementation of the Constitution and far more difficult to enforce it. It is one thing to speak of guarantees and quite another to ensure them. Those who are in politics know this far better than those of us who comment on it.

But there is a second aspect to this ‘change’; as mentioned earlier, this ‘change’, an unprecedented chain of events, is linked to the current crisis. A crisis, which is so great and urgent that an establishment which has rarely ever done anything but used governance — or rather its absence — as an excuse after the event, will now take a U-turn because of it. This, frankly, is simply a euphemism for the economy; this is what is at stake when the governance mess is mentioned again and again.

Read more: Govt joy over Pakistan’s post-Covid economic recovery questioned

But there is little to no frank discussion on the possible links between the first imbalance — the civil-military — and the second which exists in our economy.

If our present debate is to be heard and believed, it appears that the two are completely unrelated. Just as the PTI had once convinced its supporters that the economic misfortunes plaguing the country are due to the corruption of the traditional mainstream parties, the latter have now spread the notion that the PTI’s incompetence is all which is standing between prosperity and Pakistanis.

However, it is not so simple, as the PTI found out and the PML-N should know. The problems are far more entrenched and complex and the solutions are long term.

But this is a debate we are yet to have publicly. Except for a few, the majority see this issue in as black-and-white terms as corruption and vote ki izzat. And this masks the complex reality of harsh political and economic decisions which have to be taken; as well as accepting that partly these problems are linked to the national security state we have set up.

Consider for example, the issue of property tax. As Shahrukh Wani, who has done some research on it, points out, it is a difficult decision for any government to take but even if one is willing to pay the political cost, will the tax work if there is resistance to its enforcement in the Defence Housing Societies? Indeed, even in a city like Karachi, it is easy to blame the 18th Amendment or the political parties without considering the fragmented jurisdictions within the city, when searching for solutions.

And both these aspects — of the larger balance of power as well as its impact on economic matters — will continue to haunt whichever government is in power, whether the PML-N comes to power now or later. In other words, the impending rumours of change hardly point to any happy-ever-after ending. Unlike what Orson Welles said, governments cannot really end a story to ensure a happy ending.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2022

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