THEY all appeared to be reading from the same script as they renounced their affiliation with the PTI. They left in droves; many of them had occupied senior positions in the party and in government. Just a few days in detention seemed to have broken them.
It produced a domino effect, with a mass exodus of the second- and third-tier leadership. Some succumbed to intense pressure from the security agencies and the threat of persecution, while others jumped ship before the vessel hit the rocks.
We are witnesses to a process of the dismantling of a party by the same forces that had once propped it up. Tension had been building up for quite some time but the confrontation came to a head after the May 9 attack on the ‘citadel’ by enraged PTI supporters. The empire struck back with a ferocity not seen in recent times. The party simply buckled under.
Imran Khan grossly miscalculated the cost of taking on the powerful establishment. The party may not be over yet but it will be hard for the former prime minister to regain lost political ground.
The virtual dismemberment of the PTI is part of a new round of political engineering, a game that has regularly been played by the powerful and ubiquitous security establishment.
But the way arguably the most powerful political force has fallen apart is intriguing. The monotonous tone of the deserters leaves nothing to the imagination. Reading from the same text, they condemn the May 9 violence and declare their allegiance to the security forces.
Interestingly, their conscience woke up some days after the incident. It required a few days in detention or a midnight visit by the ‘invisibles’ to revive a sense of ‘patriotism’ in them.
Earlier a victim of the establishment’s machinations, PML-N has now become an instrument of it.
After joining the ranks of flag wavers, the deserters are now looking for new avenues, abandoning thousands of young men and women who were carried away by the promise of a revolution.
Many of them are languishing in prison and face trial under anti-terrorism laws. Of course, there are still some brave hearts in the leadership who are staying firm. But the die has been cast. The job of dismantling the party has to be completed.
What we are witnessing is the replay of the old game of political engineering. While the director is the same, the actors’ roles keep changing. The protagonist of the previous act is now the new villain and the baddies are now back in the leading role.
Almost every political party at some point has gone through this phase of ignominy in this sordid power game orchestrated by the establishment. Political engineering is a means of maintaining control over power.
The country has gone through various phases of direct military rule, alternating with civilian democratic dispensations functioning under the shadow of Big Brother. The civil-military clash has often led to regime change. The game of musical chairs has continued, preventing democratic institutions from consolidating.
This is the story of 75 years of our political history. Not surprisingly, the country’s basic power structure has never changed. Political engineering is also a way of protecting vested interests.
The political parties, that mostly represent the ruling elite, willingly ally themselves with the establishment in order to protect their own interests. The rise of Imran Khan also owes itself to political engineering, and the confrontation with his erstwhile patrons now threatens to block his way back to power.
The hybrid rule of which the PTI was a beneficiary hugely weakened the democratic process, thus strengthening the hold of the security establishment. Khan’s victimisation of opposition leaders vitiated the political atmosphere. Even after his ouster from power, his continuing confrontational policies blocked the democratic process.
His inflated ego has been the biggest obstruction in the way of any political dialogue. Instead of sitting in parliament, he set off on a collision course, seeking to bring down the PDM government through street power. What happened on May 9 is the result of his vitriolic narrative.
Ironically, in a role reversal, the PML-N which had earlier been the victim of political engineering has now become an instrument of it in the latest season of the game of thrones. There has also been talk about banning the PTI or disqualifying Imran Khan. Nothing could be more damaging for the political process.
More than any other political party, the PML-N should realise that such actions never work. A ban cannot keep a popular leader out of the political arena even if one is not allowed to participate in electoral politics. Nawaz Sharif is disqualified for life but he remains one of the most powerful leaders, virtually running the current government from self-exile in London.
Despite the large exodus of senior party members, Imran Khan’s mass popularity doesn’t seem to have diminished. He cannot be removed from the political arena. Any move to ban the party will further weaken the democratic process.
Indeed, the perpetrators of the May 9 violence must be brought to justice and Khan too should face the charges against him in court. But the May 9 incident must not be used to delay the elections. Any unconstitutional move will strengthen Bonapartism.
Amid the clampdown and exodus of senior party leaders, there is some indication of softening in Khan’s hard-line position. In a recent statement, he called for talks among all stakeholders to resolve the present political crisis. It is a sharp departure from his earlier position not to engage with the ruling coalition at all.
With his party facing disintegration and the sword of disqualification hanging over his head, Khan’s options are shrinking. His political survival also depends on the continuation of the democratic process.
Unfortunately, his offer for reconciliation has been rejected by the ruling coalition. It is a grave mistake to block the course of dialogue. Rejoicing in the dismantling of the PTI through political engineering will come back to haunt the ruling coalition. It is lesson of history they must remember.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2023