IT did not need to end like this.
The momentous events of this week culminating in the Supreme Court judgement setting aside the constitutional violations by the ruling party’s deputy speaker of the National Assembly constitute a defining moment in Pakistan’s political and legal history. After nearly being pushed off the rails, the country is back on the constitutional track with greater strength and confidence.
But recent weeks have left scars that will not heal easily. The new government is expected to chart a less confrontational course, and it is also expected to build a better working relationship between all institutions, but the toxins of hate and loathing continue to hover in the air we breathe. They have germinated from within the brand of politics practised by the PTI — politics that has led it down the reckless path of constitutional violations and quasi-democratic machinations. How does a political party — rooted as it is in the constitutional framework itself — reach such a stage of dysfunctional decision-making? How does it spawn a culture that enables it to override — or at least attempt to — the very foundation of the state? The PTI has been defeated by its own follies and blunders. If it intends to reform and redeem itself in the coming months and years, it will need to first acknowledge the mistakes it has made.
Nothing today suggests that it intends to do any such thing.
PTI the party will therefore stumble and fall. It will take a beating, get kicked around and whipped by the contradictions of its own self-righteousness. Hubris invites scorn. There’s plenty coming the PTI’s way in the weeks ahead. Scorn, however, is not the answer to the PTI problem. It may allow its critics the pleasure of venting, and it may also enable the new government to give as good as it got to its nemesis, but it still doesn’t solve the PTI riddle. Neither does it fill the vacuum that is being created as PTI recedes from people’s expectations. There is something fundamentally non-linear about the rise and fall of this party, and it can only be explained if you separate the party from the phenomenon it has unleashed.
There is something fundamentally non-linear about the rise and fall of this party.
PTI the phenomenon mirrors the light and dark of Pakistani society and this is one reason why, regardless of its politics, it will continue to resonate — both in a good and bad way — across our social and political landscape. PTI the party has been devastating for PTI the phenomenon, and it has tarnished it with greater intensity in the last days of its government. But the phenomenon is more resilient than its political framework. An idea often outlives its manifestation. To revive PTI, or to vanquish it, will require coming face to face with the phenomenon itself. No political party, not even the PTI, appears ready for this onerous task.
How can anyone be ready? Just look at the wide spectrum this phenomenon has unleashed: hope, optimism, belief, joy, confidence, expectations, aspirations, anger, vitriol, hate, loathing, disgust, enmity — all laced with a healthy dose of blind support and a denial of reality, even when it stares you in the face. How do you leverage and channelise these contradictory and conflicting emotions and produce practical outcomes? The PTI tried. It failed.
But the failure is not the PTI’s alone. The rise of PTI the phenomenon was triggered by the inability of the mainstream parties to evolve into mature organisations willing and able to transform Pakistani society in sync with the aspirations of its people. The rigours of military rule added to these woes and diminished any prospects of real structural change and deep-seated reform. The flock that gathered around Imran Khan in the early days was made up of dreamers who genuinely believed they could one day be in a position to make that change.
The story of later years is well known and does not merit repetition. The organic rise of the phenomenon was matched by an equally inorganic rise of the party when it got injected with a shot of political steroids from men that mattered in the establishment. The shot bulked up the party but it also fuelled the phenomenon, thereby mixing organic and inorganic elements in a strangely potent and heady cocktail. It ultimately produced a powerful outcome in the shape of the famous Oct 30, 2011, jalsa at Minar-i-Pakistan.
From then onwards, PTI the party and PTI the phenomenon melded into one force that thundered its way to victory in 2018, powered as it was by both organic and inorganic combustion. It was in power, however, that something curious began to happen. The two elements that had gelled so well, began to drift apart like oil and water. The party fumbled and stumbled with the task of governance while fumbling and stumbling to manage expectations born of the phenomenon. It was almost like the frail body of the party was too weak to handle the force of the phenomenon raging inside like an uncontrollable storm. Unalloyed incompetence, unfiltered arrogance and undeserved appointments, all these kept weakening the party even as Prime Minister Imran Khan — the supposed manifestation of both the party and the phenomenon — blundered his way through the delicate art of governance. But even his worst critics could not have imagined that the fairytale would end like this.
The blatant violation of the Constitution, the wild quasi-profane rants, the reckless conspiracy theorising at the expense of national interests and the shocking lack of grace and sportsman’s spirit in acknowledging a defeat and walking away with the chin high, all this in recent weeks has soiled whatever was left of the party’s image.
But what of the phenomenon? It continues to burn like a forest fire. It now appears that PTI the party, and the people who have lorded over it, have failed PTI the phenomenon. Can anyone else dare harness it?
It did not need to end like this. But in the end, there could be a beginning.
The writer is a journalist & political commentator.
Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2022