THERE has already been adequate kerfuffle around the appearance of PTI senior vice-president Ejaz Chaudhry at the Difaa-i-Pakistan Council’s rally in Karachi.
This is the latest demonstration of PTI’s tendency to cavort with the religious right and extremist groups. Imran Khan himself delivered a message via his envoy at the DPC’s Lahore rally in December. Previously, Chaudhry has attended rallies with Jamaatud Dawa’s Hafiz Saeed. And flags of the banned SSP have been raised at many a PTI rally. The further right the Great Khan and his party stray, the more defensive his supporters become. It is high time that defence was analysed.
PTI’s urban supporters claim that liberal elitists (such as themselves, ironically) evoke the bogeyman of ‘Taliban Khan’ in a last-ditch attempt to undermine his credibility. This, they claim, is ultimate proof that the man has no real flaws. The critique is then easily dismissed with a classicist jibe — ‘extremists’, say PTI’s people, is simply a particular social elite’s synonym for ‘the masses’.
Supporters who are willing to engage the critique more seriously argue that Khan is not advocating on behalf of extremist groups, rather he is trying to engage stakeholders across Pakistan’s political and ideological spectrum (let’s leave aside Khan’s flip-flopping on the blasphemy law issue, which specifically panders to an ideological subset). Still other supporters — perhaps those of a cynical bent — suggest Khan is doing whatever it takes to get elected, and remain confident that he will return to his true, progressive self once in power.
Push hard enough, and all PTI supporters backed into the ‘Taliban Khan’ corner will ultimately offer the same defence: the spread of religious extremism is not Pakistan’s biggest problem. We must first tackle urgent issues such as the economy, energy and education. Khan is the man to deliver on these counts.
And herein lies the logical fallacy of most PTI supporters. Countering religious extremism — in other words, separating mosque and state and championing a secular Pakistan — is a prerequisite of service delivery in a democracy. Secularism calls for neutrality in the public sphere; it mandates that no one can prop one faith, ideology or worldview above another. In democracies, secularism is the guarantor of neutral and equitable service delivery, and thus the starting point of citizenship, because it prevents public institutions from privileging particular groups on the basis of their beliefs or preferences. In other words, the state cannot hope to fairly provide energy and education for its people until it views them in a neutral fashion.
But let’s concede that this argument is too academic, littered with pie-in-the-sky semantics. There’s still no escaping the fact that ‘religion’ in Pakistan is not merely an abstract concept that can be debated at the polity’s leisure. The rationale of the established security state is founded on a particular interpretation of Islam; indeed, religion has long been wielded as a policy tool to justify the maintenance of a large Muslim army against Indian ‘infidels’ across the border.
In short, Pakistan’s security state is an Islamist state. The extremist groups that Khan’s party hobnobs with are not organic expressions of a religious interpretation that just happened to become popular — they were created and cultivated by the state to promote a very particular political and foreign policy agenda. Deconstructing that agenda is certainly a requirement for improving service delivery.
To put all this in concrete terms: the religious political parties and extremist groups that the PTI is willing to openly engage support a status quo in which the Pakistan Army is the country’s dominant political player and India is the perennial enemy. In these circumstances, a bulk of Pakistan’s GDP is diverted towards defence spending, leaving little for education, healthcare or infrastructure development. The only option for managing this status quo is to spur economic growth so that all stakeholders (the army, educators, healthcare providers, etc.) get bigger pieces of an overall larger pie. The best way to do that is to boost trade between Pakistan and India. This alas remains a no-no by the very terms of the status quo. In sum, Khan has few prospects of improving social service delivery as long as the status quo persists. And believe me, the status quo will persist as long as Pakistan subscribes to a religiously inflected narrative.
On another note, the status quo also permits the proliferation of extremist groups to counter India’s ever-rising military might. But as recent history has so brutally taught us, more extremists only means more trouble for Pakistan. And on this point too, PTI’s supporters seem to have it wrong: there can be no meaningful service delivery in the absence of basic security — and there’s no denying that many of the extremist groups participating in DPC rallies are anathema to overall security and stability.
Before I get inundated with emails from PTI activists claiming that I am not giving enough credit to the man who brought back the Cricket World Cup for Pakistan, let me optimistically assume that Khan finds a way to circumvent the security state and focus productively on service delivery. We are still stuck with the simple reality that, in Pakistan’s quid pro quo culture of patronage politics, he will remain beholden to those who facilitated his rise to power.
The religious right and extremist groups can deliver politicians and constituencies to help the PTI get elected. In turn, they will want a stake in the political system and a say in policymaking. One can argue that Khan is already caught in this vicious cycle — his party’s appearances at DPC rallies are conceivably payback for the time when, as the lone PTI legislator in 2002, he was adopted by the MMA. Can Khan bowl his way out of this conundrum?
The writer is a freelance journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org