Is the PTI a political party?

Published June 2, 2023
The writer is a political economist and heads the IBA, Karachi. The views are his own and do not represent those of the institution.
The writer is a political economist and heads the IBA, Karachi. The views are his own and do not represent those of the institution.

THE vicious vengeance directed against leaders and supporters of the PTI is a clear sign that the ruling parties in power have given up on even the pretence of democratic norms in Pakistan.

Every unconstitutional and extrajudicial measure must be condemned by all those who argue for any sense of democratic processes and procedures, regardless of the political dispensation they support. Similarly, the constitutional mandate to hold elections after 90 days of the dismissal of any government should be, and must be upheld as a non-negotiable tenet of the Constitution.

Sabotaging a constitutional, democratic and electoral process should not be premised on the outcome of a constitutionally mandated election. For democrats, such basic principles need to be upheld and articulated in all circumstances.

The multiple attacks and the violence against the PTI by the state and its manifestations, has revealed numerous aspects of the political field in Pakistan which opens up a considerably large canvas in order to understand the political structures and processes in the country. Numerous themes can be theorised based on the developments over the last few years and serious academics have enough material to think through and write about such aspects. One such theme which has become obvious, if ever proof was needed, is that the PTI is not, and has never been, a political party.

The PTI is (or was, until recently) merely a collection of a few second-tier political aspirants seeking electoral representation and power. Most of those who have been with the PTI over the last six or so years were imported from other political parties or were, at best, local political overlords ruling over one or a couple of constituencies.

The fact that these men, for they were mainly men, could so easily be transferred to another political grouping by those who assign such tasks, shows clearly that they had no roots in the party which they happened to join to get elected. Here today, gone tomorrow, wherever their marching orders take them. This is most evident from the supposed ‘desertions’ which have taken place on our screens every few hours.

These political aspirants, many of whom are political novices, have left a group they were asked to join, and now await further instructions on which group they should invest in next, knowing that such investment will bring near-guaranteed returns.

The term for such political mavericks is ‘opportunists’, often people without conscience, belief or cause. The constituents of political parties, even Pakistan’s notorious dynastic parties, have more backbone and more belief than what these so-called deserters have shown.

All political aspirants are in the game to gain power at some level, but differences between political parties are clearly evident. There are more ‘hard-core’ supporters and political workers in many parties, notably religious parties, who know they will never win big in Pakistan, yet their workers stand steady with the party, its ideology and its leadership.

Movements fizzle out often once they get power, for running a government or a country is very different from running a campaign.

As has been very evident from the very beginning, the PTI is, and always has been, only Imran Khan. This has always been the case and, as the grouping around him abandons him and falls apart, that truth has become even more obvious now. Without Imran Khan, there is no, and cannot be, any PTI. This is not the case with those parties referred to as Pakistan’s ‘dynastic’ parties.

Even these dynastic parties, perhaps because they are dynastic and have a history and a past, have political workers who gather around some lost ideology, leader or imagined political movement.

Dynastic parties attract the make-believe of an era lost now, which still brings old symbols to the modern political worker. Bhutto, Bacha Khan, Maududi, even Nawaz Sharif, all bring in some sense of a glorious and imagined past which aligns with different groups and individuals looking for a historical connection, albeit to ideas which are no longer much remembered. In contrast, all the PTI has as history is winning a cricket match.

Personal charisma and the political populism that it entails gives rise to possible success in presidential-style electoral systems, as we have seen in numerous countries which follow such electoral processes.

Being the most popular politician in a parliamentary system, which Khan certainly is, does not translate into winning a majority at a constituency level, unless a populist leads a well-entrenched and deep-rooted political party, like the BJP, which enhances Modi’s charisma and populism. Without a political party, in the end, Khan only wins one seat.

While not a political party, the PTI has certainly been a political movement structured around its charismatic leader. Yet, as we see amongst many movements globally, movements often fizzle out, often once they get power, for running a government or a country is very different from running a movement or campaign.

The crumbling of the PTI supposedly as a political party, shows clearly how issues and protests around justice, climate change, or even inequality, require deeper commitment and organisation, requiring constituency building at the grassroots level.

Imran Khan is, and will be, the ‘Last Man Standing’. At times one admires his courage and the fact that he has deep belief, but his hubris and ideology clearly undermines any sense of him creating a political party. His way or the highway implies docile servitude, because all his party members know that without him, they would cease to exist politically, at least in his party.

Compared to other political parties in Pakistan, while many pay homage to their leaders and are dependent on their largesse, and where sycophancy also rules, there is, nevertheless, open public dissent and there are many second- and third-tier leaders willing to run their parties and governments.

As we have seen, you remove a Bhutto, a Zardari or a Sharif, and you have many well-established, independent-minded politicians willing and able enough to step in and make their name. The PTI is only Imran Khan.

The writer is a political economist and heads the IBA, Karachi. The views are his own and do not represent those of the institution.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2023

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