The centre cannot hold

Published January 2, 2024
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

SHAKESPEARE may have come up with a line for all times when he wrote “to be or not to be”, but in Pakistan we have found a dilemma just as important and worthy of much debate.

We have been wondering whether or not this past year and what it brought in politics was unprecedented. Is it simply more of the same aka 2018 main bhi yehi hua tha, or have the excesses against a political party touched new heights — or should it be lows?

At this rate, this discussion will continue as we enter 2024 because we Pakistanis believe in carrying our baggage with us, as we do our circular debts. But instead of a recap of the year that passed, let me try and offer a slightly different, or zara hat kai, version of what we have been experiencing for the past few years, and what really is ‘unprecedented’.

Pakistan has evolved as a country which has become used to living on international rents, thanks to our geostrategic position. From Ayub Khan’s decision to join the Western bloc to the two Afghan wars, we picked friends and allies who came bearing gifts in the form of aid and dollars, which were then used to make the economy grow — and ‘buy’ legitimacy for the unelectable leaders ruling us.

Elections — managed ones — were held, and state patronage, in the shape of development funds, were shared with politicians, which then trickled down to the people. The politicians, give or take a few, fell in line in that despite constant refrains of unfair and rigged elections, political parties generally opted to sit in parliament.

Other than arguing that this was important for strengthening the parliamentary process, this also suited individual parliamentarians, in all parties, who needed access to patronage, which was routed through the forum.

The ‘heavy-handedness’ on display may not end soon.

However, this political consensus — if it can be called that — has been weakening in recent years as the economy has faltered. The inflow of aid has been reducing; there is less money to spare and share, while the expenses of the state/ government continue to grow.

The absence of reform means the economy is not growing, while the needs of the populace continue to explode. Urbanisation and the youth bulge add to the problems; the existing patronage system can only cater to a limited number. The impact this has had on politics in terms of new parties and movements is an issue which continues to be discussed time and again.

But more important, this crisis of the economy has weakened consensus among the elite — an elite which was willing to let the military establishment be the primary stakeholder at home because of its ability to secure rents from abroad. And if this primary role meant that the latter intervened in politics, disrupted the political process and dominated policymaking, so be it.

The judiciary would provide legal cover, the politicians would take part in elections and provide a form of legitimacy. Even the business elite would pay homage to the ‘stability’ brought about. This allowed the establishment to enjoy legitimacy and claim it had the people’s support.

However, this started changing in the post-Musharraf period as rents began to dry up. Perhaps one can argue that from the 2013 PML-N term onwards, intervention in politics and the resultant instability has garnered more and more criticism from society and within the elite because in the absence of international rents, it is hard to camouflage the instability that interventions cause in politics.

With the economic crisis intensifying, criticism has simply grown in the wake of the clash with the PTI, beginning with its removal from power and the crackdown which followed in 2023.

This absence of consensus is not just visible in the judiciary, which has more than once given decisions that have made the establishment’s ‘plans’ (or scripts) difficult to implement, but also in the reluctance of politicians to fall in line.

Forming the king’s party is not the walk in the park it used to be because state patronage is not proving enough to muster the numbers needed to secure victories.

And as the populace, for the reasons mentioned, is also opting for parties such as the PTI (in mainstream areas such as Punjab), electables are being forced to choose between the people — or their choice of party — and the establishment. If this was PML-N in 2018, it is PTI in 2023.

This is one reason for the harsh measures we have been witnessing in recent years where politicians have faced imprisonment, torture, threats to family and business. If this meant disqualification and imprisonment for the PML-N 2017 onwards, it has at present led to temporary enforced disappearances for those in the PTI as well as kidnappings of family members and raids on their homes.

In other words, the establishment has turned to harsher tactics, as it faces loss of legitimacy, not just among the people but also the political elite, who were earlier willing to play second fiddle.

Ask any PTI politician who has to contest an election and he will explain that while the establishment is pressuring him to switch sides, the voters have warned him that he can only win if he stands firm. And there are no solutions to this equation, it seems.

The point of this spiel was not just to explain that what is unprecedented is the fragile consensus which had existed earlier among the elite. In fact, it is also to argue that the ‘heavy-handedness’ in display may not end soon. As the economic crisis intensifies and the fragmentation of the elite continues, the establishment will turn more authoritarian, as it struggles to maintain its dominance.

In the short term, there might not be a change in this larger policy unless there is a quick (miraculous) injection of funds which can restore — even partially — the earlier system. The targets may change but the repressive measures, I fear, are here to stay, unless all the players are willing to sit down and chalk out a new consensus.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2024

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