Nearly every civilian prime minister in Pakistan has had to leave office prior to the expiration of his/her stated term. Just as the army’s blessings were crucial for the PMs to ascend to the highest civilian office, so too they have had to leave unceremoniously once they fell out with the establishment. The three-year itch is when things have historically gone sour, when the same page begins to rip.
To students of Pakistan’s political history, the writing was on the wall. When Bhutto could be sent to the gallows and Nawaz into exile why would it be any different for Imran Khan? But this history was lost on PTI supporters. They believed Imran was exceptional. Until he wasn’t.
Yet, as a firm critic of Imran’s politics, I must acknowledge that his charisma has proven overbearing. Who would have thought that when he falls out with the establishment, lifelong supporters of the institution would turn against it? That high-ranking retired soldiers would shift allegiances to him and become critics of the very institution they served in and benefited from?
As an objective analyst I must hand it to Imran. This is a tabdeeli (change) that only he has managed. Yet his supporters are not interested in democracy or civilian supremacy. They are only convinced that anyone who opposes him is evil (read: corrupt, lifafa, chor, daku) and those who stand by him unquestioningly have seen the light. It doesn’t matter if it’s Reham Khan or Gen Bajwa; Aleem Khan or Jahangir Tareen. As long as they are tied to Imran Khan they are good people but the minute that link is severed, they become horrible. This is what is meant by ‘Imran is our red line’.
They believed Imran was exceptional. Until he wasn’t.
His authority must be accepted blindly. With the result that the party that was ostensibly created to counter undemocratic dynasties, has no real party structure and is entirely reliant on one man. That man is undoubtedly very popular and can contest from seven seats and win them all in the by-elections. But that popularity does not hold in the Karachi local government polls, where PTI candidates were lacklustre and the party slumped to third place, behind rivals PPP and JI.
Party stalwarts like Fawad Chaudhry have announced that if elections are held on the seats from which PTI MNAs have resigned, Imran will contest from every constituency. So he will contest from 70 different places? Even if he wins all 70, what will happen when he vacates those seats (for he can only hold one ultimately) and has to field replacement candidates? How many of those seats will PTI be able to retain?
And what about another perfectly possible scenario? The fabled Minus One. What if Imran Khan is disqualified? Again, if it can happen to Nawaz Sharif why can’t it happen to Imran? Certainly there are legal cases outstanding — the matter of Tyrian White, the foreign funding case, the Toshakhana case. Any one of those can lead to his disqualification.
Let’s compare how PML-N dealt with Minus One. Not well, to be honest. Unlike PPP, where there was a clear uncontested succession within the family, made possible because of tragic assassinations, the Sharifs emerged divided. Matters are further complicated by Nawaz’s daughter, Maryam, and Shehbaz’s son, Hamza, vying for pole position.
In a popularity contest, Nawaz and Maryam would easily outdo Shehbaz and Hamza. But it isn’t April 2022 anymore. It’s January 2023. And the economy is tanking. Granted the downhill trajectory had begun during Imran Khan’s time. But the current government has not been able to arrest the nosedive. Replacing Miftah Ismail with Ishaq Dar was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Unlike PTI, where one man reigns supreme and defines the party, PML-N supporters and workers are split. They are not all willing to blindly acquiesce. This is a good thing for a democracy. There must be dissent within political parties for democracy to properly take root. Given our history, one must add that it is not the prerogative of the establishment to manufacture that dissent. But that dissent must surface organically.
In that regard, Miftah Ismail’s story must be heard and heeded. Was his removal the result of family connections trumping merit? If Nawaz Sharif wants to leave a legacy, he shouldn’t focus on tightening the family’s hold on the party, but on hearing the dissenting voices of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and other loyal party workers on how to better run affairs.
This should also be a lesson for the PTI supporters. They need to start thinking beyond Imran Khan. What does the party stand for besides hate for opposing politicians? What will be their strategy if Imran is disqualified? They too must heed the dissenters like Jahangir Tareen and Aleem Khan, rather than ostracising them.
The writer is a lawyer in London.
Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2023
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