THE outburst may not have been the first time that Prime Minister Imran Khan lost his cool but his tenor during a live TV session the other day was not one expected from a leader who is in control of the situation. A threatening tone betrayed his deep frustration and vulnerability.
He not only vented his anger against the opposition but also targeted the judiciary and media. They were blamed for everything that has gone wrong with his government. He seemed to be fighting a losing battle but is not prepared to give up. His fall may not be inevitable but the unfolding events raise questions about his government’s survival.
The prime minister also delivered a warning that he could be more dangerous when out of power. One is not sure at whom the threat was directed. It reminds one of the words attributed to Louis XV of France: “Après moi, le deluge”. It may not be the endgame but the prime minister’s words have certainly reinforced the widespread impression about his government’s increasingly untenable situation. Unfortunately, there seems to be little willingness on his part to see where the government has gone wrong. There are always others to be blamed for the problems. It is either the misrule of previous regimes or the mafias that are held responsible for the country’s predicament. The prime minister’s frustration seems to have arisen with the collapse of the PTI government’s ‘anti-corruption’ drive that had mainly targeted the opposition leaders. He blamed the judiciary and media for the failure.
It is evident that he is under a lot of pressure as public discontent grows over the rising cost of living and the government fails to deliver on its promises to bring about change. The argument about inflation being entirely driven by external factors is not convincing. There is no denial of global linkages but misgovernance and flawed economic policies have also been the reason for spiralling commodity prices in the country. Blaming mafias and cartels for the problem cannot satisfy the people who are directly affected by the galloping food prices.
The prime minister appears to be fighting a losing battle.
It has cost the ruling party hugely in terms of political support. The upset in the KP local bodies’ elections is indicative of the party’s shrinking political base. It has brought to the surface the widening rift within party ranks. The move to reorganise the party in the midst of the crisis has added to the confusion at a time when the opposition has stepped up its campaign to bring down the government.
Speculations about a deal between the security establishment and the opposition groups seem to have increased the government’s worries. The widespread rumours about a possible deal seem to have triggered the PM’s angst. His reference to the speculations indicated his unease. For a government which has been largely dependent on the security establishment for its survival such a possibility would obviously be disturbing. In Pakistani politics, such back room deals are not unusual. The growing confidence in the ranks of the opposition and the latter’s plan to march on Islamabad has given currency to the rumours that the security establishment has distanced itself from the government.
That could also mark the weakening of the hybrid power arrangement. Not surprisingly, the prime minister’s remarks that he could be more dangerous if ousted from power is seen by many as a threat to the opposition as well as a message to the establishment. But such a stance could also be seen as sign of weakness. That may lead to the unravelling of the fragile coalition. Such messaging could have a demoralising effect on the PTI. An authoritarian and irrational approach can harm his government more than the opposition’s campaign.
A refusal to interact with the opposition on even critical national issues has weakened the democratic process in the country. There is little realisation on the prime minister’s part that a weakened system has made his government more vulnerable. The prime minister might call himself a democratically elected leader, but a demonstration of respect for parliament is still lacking, while contempt for elected representatives was more strongly evident in his remarks.
It has been asked why the prime minister is not ready to interact with the leader of the opposition whom he calls a criminal, but is willing to talk with terrorist groups like the TTP, who have now called off the ceasefire and stepped up attacks on Pakistani security forces. Of late, the group has carried out terrorist attacks in Islamabad and other places. Confronting the opposition and having a policy of appeasement towards outlawed militant groups has created a very dangerous situation for the democratic process in the country.
Self-righteousness and the politics of religiosity have compounded the government’s problems, with worsening political and governance crises. Recently, some local papers carried an article by the prime minister ‘Spirit of Riyasat-i-Madina: transforming Pakistan’ that describes his vision of an Islamic welfare society, with the main emphasis being the establishment of rule of law in the country. According to the article, the country is suffering “from elite capture, where powerful and crooked politicians, cartels and mafias have become accustomed to being above the law in order to protect their privileges gained through a corrupt system”.
There may not be any dispute over the elite capture of the state, but the PTI’s entire politics has been geared towards strengthening the same system. The people around the prime minister belong to the same elite class whom he claims to be fighting.
The prime minister’s concept of ‘Riyasat-i-Madina’ remains as ambiguous as his politics. Clichés don’t address the serious challenges that the country is facing on the political and economic fronts. His latest outburst on television raises questions about his ability to lead the country at this critical moment of its history.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2022