SHOCKED millions glued to their TV screens saw a three-hour Bollywood-type political thriller unfold before their eyes on the evening of April 9. An intense day-long struggle in the National Assembly gave way to reports of army vehicles and prison vans near it, an emergency cabinet huddle, rumours of a helicopter visit to the prime minister by Pindi men and an unusual opening of the courts near midnight. But as one feared full chaos, the thriller ended meekly at midnight.
This huge shock to the system was not from an outsider but an elite insider. Our 75-year history has seen strife among largely middle-class elites in the military, bureaucracy and the courts versus the political landed and business elites, with mass support won via crude politics that the former category abhors. State elites have held sway due to military muscle and ruled directly for long, more ruinously than the crude politicians. After each failure, they handed back power to the politicians while pitting the landed and business elites against each other to hold sway.
This plot ended with the rise of a private middle-class party led by a glamorous ex-playboy, who resorted to childish rants of delivering glory by ending sleaze. The state’s eyes lit up with glee as it saw a natural middle-class partner, who could dump the traditional elites, and allegedly helped it win illegally. This state-private middle-class axis was to last long and deliver glory. But soon there were tiffs. Private elites saw state elites enjoying the privileges they hate. State elites found them more unfit to rule than traditional elites. Today, the middle-class axis lies broken. State elites have re-embraced traditional ones, but not before the jilted private elites created an audacious fuss at their very legal removal.
These elites are now on the streets demanding an inquiry into a US-PDM plot against them for cultivating Russian ties. In 2014 too, the PTI created a national crisis via rigging untruths that its demanded commission rejected. Now too, there is no proof, not even a good motive for a US plot. The PML-N defied the US far more with its strategic CPEC ties with China. There must be an inquiry, not into one but two plots: a US one or a PTI one to use that lie to violate the Constitution. If PTI proves a US plot, the PDM must be punished; otherwise it should be the other way around. The PDM demanded an Article 6 treason case. But that is best for coups that upend the whole Constitution and all institutions. The PTI broke a few clauses only. So the courts could end matters in a week. An electoral ban of 10-plus years is more apt.
It seems the PTI can only operate in two modes.
Now we see all other elites oppose private elites — a role that helps the latter pretend to be anti-elite. Yet their irrationality based on fake TV shows and social media, blind hero-worshipping and self-righteous disregard for the law when it doesn’t suit them reveal their mindset. They avoid deep analysis as it exposes their own elite privileges — not as crude as those of other elites but couched erroneously in capitalism lingo as fruits for merit. Merit, though, is denied by all elites to the masses and its fruits are too big. So, their war is not for crafting a just society but to increase their power vis-à-vis those higher in the elite pecking order. They only offer tiny social programmes that keep the masses alive but poor enough for further exploitation.
It seems the PTI can only operate in two modes: allegedly ruling illegally or trying to topple legitimate regimes. Still, it generates more energetic protests for its controversial claims about 2013 rigging and 2022 removal than the PML-N did for its believable claims about the 2018 rigging. Nawaz Sharif was fired wrongly. The PTI was installed by alleged rigging but removed legally, which it resisted illegally. Yet many educated people protest the one legal act and support the three illegal ones.
Traditional elites are usually more anti-democratic. But the PPP and PML-N representing them took the controversial firing of their prime ministers by the courts more decently than the PTI did the legitimate firing of its leader by the National Assembly. The biggest violators of democratic norms are all largely middle-class groups, ie military elites, the PTI and extremist groups like the TLP.
Can the PTI win soon? It may lack support to do so. Nawaz caused a similar shock in 1999. It took him 15 years to win. The PTI wants early polls while it whips up fury that may lead to bloody polls. But early polls are still good given the weak mandate of the current regime. We have a chance to return to political legitimacy via free polls again. However, only the puppet has fallen; not the puppet masters. It took them four failed direct rules to finally realise the damage. How many hybrid regimes will it take them to grasp this fact?
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2022