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A tale of two lions ... and then some

Published Oct 31, 2011 04:04pm

Imran Khan has become the aaloo to PML-N’s anday.

There is no denying the fact that, with his October 30 rally in Lahore, Khan was finally able to convincingly announce his arrival on the mainstream political scene ... in the Punjab.

His mammoth rally in the heart of PML-N’s traditional stronghold has sent shockwaves across the corridors of PML-N’s headquarters in the city of Raiwind, shaking an already nervous PML-N leadership.

PML-N’s controversial MPA and the current law minister of the Punjab, Rana Sanaullah, kept calling Imran, ‘Pagal Khan’ (mad Khan), while talking to a local TV channel, as another PML-N stalwart, Senator Pervez Rashid, was seen sheepishly backtracking on his earlier statement in which he announced that he would resign from the senate if Khan was able to gather more than 5,000 people at the rally. Later he claimed that the figure he quoted was 50,000!

It doesn’t matter what Rashid claimed or how Sanaullah mocked Imran by calling him mad, the game is truly afoot between PML-N’s right-wing vote bank in the Punjab and a new, if I may, right-of-left vote bank developing in central and northern Punjab’s urban middle and lower-middle-classes.

This new vote bank is made up of those young people who are likely to perhaps vote for the first time in their lives in the next elections, and of also those who are set to slip into the Khan camp from within PML-N’s traditional vote bank. For PML-N this is certainly a cause for concern. And if you minus its chief, Mian Nawaz Sharif from the equation – perhaps the only element left in the PML-N still not sure about the party’s exceedingly hawkish ways against the PPP-led coalition in Islamabad – the hawks in the party, led by Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, have finally managed to take the reins of the party and dictate its future course.

Of course, PML-N’s palpitations in this respect were always expected to increase in frequency as the date for the senate elections (March next year) draws near, and which are expected to sweep the PPP into the senate as well. But whereas, Nawaz Sharif is hoping for an early general elections (that is, before February 2013), he is clearly not so sure what - if PML-N’s anti-government maneuvers outside the parliament manages to topple the PPP-led coalition governments in the centre and in Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - would mean for the PML-N.

There is every likelihood that since the PML-N is unable to move against the current government in a constitutional manner without the help of strong parliamentarian allies (that are all allied to the PPP government) PML-N hawks have decided to take the plunge.

They are hoping that either the military or the Supreme Court would intervene to (somehow) mange to persuade the government to hold fresh elections ‘due to the deteriorating law and order situation.’

This is certainly dangerous territory and thinking.

What if the military – so far willing to work with a more pragmatic PPP and repulsed by Mian Sahab’s ‘politics of principals’ that has, to the much cringing of PML-N’s hawks, not shied away from questioning the military’s role in politics – not ready to play the kind of ‘mediating’ role between feuding parties the way it did in the 1990s?

Also, what happens if the ‘revolution’ being promised by Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif ‘against corruption,’ remains restricted in the shape of agitation and street violence in the urban areas of central Punjab only?

Sindh, Balochistan and KP (as well as Southern Punjab) are (as yet) nowhere in the picture in this respect. History suggests that political violence and turmoil in urban Punjab has only meant the imposition of Martial Law that, in the post-Cold War world, may mean the chucking out of conventional political parties and forming a military-backed regime of ‘technocrats.’

The collapse of PML-N’s movement, as well as, in the extreme case of this movement unwittingly opening the gates for a government of military-backed technocrats will not bode well for the PML-N.

In fact, it won’t sit well with Pakistan itself. Because no matter how ‘incompetent’ the current government is, the idea should be to let democracy flow and let the people decide through their vote whom to elect next.

Otherwise it’ll all go back to square-one: Smug military men and so-called ‘clean’ technocrats at the helm, providing a façade of stability but once again alienating the majority of the electorate in the smaller provinces that, mind you, do not belong to the chest-beating and profoundly concerned urban middle-classes.

But what has made PML-N go on a war path that may witness its own discomfiture?

The desperation in its ranks is clearly an outcome of four main factors:

(1)    The failure of its government in the Punjab to:

•        Tackle some horrendous health issues (dengue outbreak), rising Islamist militancy (ironically being tackled by the Punjab government by trying to actually cuddle-up with certain vicious sectarian outfits).

•         Its failure to check Punjab’s economic slide and political clout.

(2)   The emergence of Imran Khan’s PTI as the province’s third political force (after PML-N and the PPP); an emergence that can dent PML-N’s conservative vote-bank more than it can PPP’s long-standing left-leaning and rural/semi-rural vote bank. It’s also an emergence (of the PTI) that PML-N claims is being ‘engineered’ by certain sections of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to subdue the ‘dangerous (anti-Military) Nawaz Sharif in the Punjab.’

(3)      The PML-N hawks’ overreaction to the taunts it has had to face (from the media) that the Sharif brothers have been outmaneuvered over and over again by President Zaradri and,

(4)   The general feeling in urban upper and middle-class Punjab that its influential political and economic clout (consolidated by General Ziaul Haq and the Sharif brothers ever since the mid-1980s),  has been eroding, especially in the event of the smaller provinces now finding themselves playing a bigger political role without depending much on this section of the country.It is vital for Mian Nawaz Sharif to return to the kind of equilibrium he had (albeit awkwardly) struck within his party ever since his return from exile in 2007.

Or at least he should try to give some sense and direction to the party’s rampaging hawks that are willingly stumbling (rather comically) onto a path of near-self-destruction.

Losing the senate elections in March or not, PML-N’s wellbeing remains attached to attracting its voters through tangible work done on the ground and talking sense instead of trying to find a desperate short-cut through cheap, disposable talk of ‘revolution’ or of building a Tharir Sqaure in Lahore!

Supporters of Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). -AFP Photo

But the million dollar question is does Imran Khan have what it takes to bring out all those who gathered at his rally and persuade them to actually vote?

It must be remembered that though Khan might very well spin many traditional PML-N voters to turn up and stamp their votes in his favor, a large number of Imran’s supporters still consist of young men and women who have no clue how democracy works and what their vote really means.

Such a dilemma is a reminder of the fact that many of these young people belong to a generation of urban middle-class youth that has been brought up on demagogic tirades (on TV by good-for-ratings orators) against democracy, political parties, the West and India.

It is this generation and a somewhat reactionary drawing-room/TV studio tendency that has actually given birth to the current Imran phenomenon.

Nevertheless, now that Imran has finally graduated from being a frowning, enraged caricature of a neo-Bhutto on TV, and finds himself standing smack-dab in the middle of Pakistan’s more pragmatic mainstream political arena, it is hoped that the above-mentioned generation would follow suit as well.

Becoming a political participant through the democratic process edges out the fanciful Utopianism that usually overtakes and muddles the thinking of those who want to remain outside this process in the name of revolution or whatever.The result of such a disposition is mere frustration and eventual isolation from ground realities turning the person into a mindless, babbling conspiracy theorist or a blob of reactionary emotions.

It is thus a good sign that such a generation (by attending Khan’s rally) actually turned up to experience their first taste of populist ground-level politics.

Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). -AFP Photo

Nevertheless it is another thing as to what Khan actually said. Thankfully avoiding the foaming, desperate antics of Shahbaz Sharif’s speech (on 28 October), Imran wisely chose wit to attack the Sharif brothers and Zardari.

But much of his speech remained nothing more than a mix of feel-good sloganeering and hollow revolutionary spiel. For example, exactly what does he mean when he says that he wants to turn Pakistan into an ‘Islamic welfare state?’To me this term is as meaningless, really, as, say, Bhutto’s ‘Islamic socialism,’ or for that matter, ‘Islamic banking!’

What is Khan suggesting? Is it just about the suffix ‘Islamic’ we put in front of everything that we do but that has very little to do with Islam?

Why can’t we just have a welfare state, or is that too western and secular sounding?

And to have a welfare state, is Khan planning to nationalise major industries and businesses and have the state confiscate large tracts of land?He says he can do this with an effective tax collection system. Great, all power to him then, but, again, what has that got to do with Islam?

Secondly, he rather audaciously used (in his speech) the figure of those killed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan (35,000+) since 2004, as a direct consequence of American drone attacks and ‘war on terror.’

Since the number of people killed in drone attacks is not even a quarter of those killed in the cities by extremists; and also, since many of those killed by drones have also been Islamic militants, it was, I think, rather sheepish and slippery of Khan to associate the multifold deaths of men, women and children at the hands of extremists in the cities to drone strikes.

And why would those who, as Imran claims, become extremists after their loved ones are struck by a drone, seek revenge by striking at common civilians praying in mosques and shrines, or studying in schools, or buying and selling in open markets?When Imran talks about holding a dialogue with militants, is he talking about negotiating and sympathising with such remorseless men?

This smacks of what is called the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ – a psychological phenomenon wherein hostages begin expressing sympathy and have positive feelings towards their tormentors, sometimes to the point of defending them.

Khan’s fanciful musings in this respect are actually a rather cowardly display (by the new ‘Lion of Lahore’) of twisted convolution (if not downright dishonesty) in which he is confounding his already confused young constituency by suggesting that extremist violence is being perpetrated upon a hapless population in the cities of Pakistan by those who are being killed by American drones.

Is that what is making these oh-so-wronged men blow up markets, shrines, mosques, churches, imambargahs and Ahmadis’ places of worship and slaughtering Pakistanis at will?

And even if this is what is making them do so, then shame on them and on those who are sympathising with them. For example, when a man dies from a ranger’s and a cop’s bullet in Karachi’s slum area, does his son or daughter goes out to explode in public because he’s been ‘wronged?’

No. He might become a criminal or a ‘target killer’ or whatever, but a mass murderer ... ?

I sincerely wish now that Imran has made his initial mark in mainstream politics, he gets his bearings right and breaks out of the belief that he is still talking to a facebook crowd.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.