In the post-Musharraf period, Pakistani politicians have been behaving as if they are revolutionaries. Their self image as political radicals reached megalomaniac proportion since 2014, the year Pakistani military establishment launched a soft intervention in the political system that disrupted the smoothness and stability defined by constitutional endeavours of major religious and political parties. Two political leaders stand out in the context of their pretensions as revolutionaries and radicals: Imran Khan in the period from 2014 till the parliamentary elections in July 2018, and Nawaz Sharif since his incarceration under a conviction in a corruption case up till the present moment.
Watching Imran Khan speaking at a rally in August 2014 was sheer fun. He was pretending as if he was in the league of Vladimir Lenin and Ayatollah Khomeini. He was spitting fire and the choice of his words led many to think that he really believed that the fun-loving middle-class and upper-middle-class – the chattering classes that manned his rallies – could really unravel the status quo or bring about a revolutionary change in society. The socioeconomic composition of Nawaz Sharif’s party is no different. But as he had spent more time in power, he had successfully co-opted the rabble-rousing lower strata of society with the help of patronage networks that he presided over while in power.
That doesn’t mean that these restive lower strata of the society were any more likely to follow Nawaz Sharif into the streets of urban Pakistan to create a revolutionary situation. Not at all! Crony capitalists fund both parties and demand returns when they enter the power corridors. Feudals join the winning party, in the case of both PMLN and PTI, at the 11th hour, after painstaking calculations on which one is the winning side – because rural elites need to keep themselves in assertive positions vis-à-vis the state machinery in their localities. Both the parties keep middle-class professionals as showpieces. But these middle-class professionals never reach that portion of the power corridors where the policies are made. That portion is reserved for nominees of the military establishment. Both these gentlemen could be described as a cyclostyle copy of the first populist leader of Pakistan’s political history—yes, I mean Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Their speech writers or media managers, however, started writing scripts in the post-Musharraf period that sounded more like no-holds-barred revolutionary texts.
Any political leader who is not making the question of a new resource-distributive mechanism a central agenda of their politics is basically trying to deceive their own support base
Imran Khan’s political campaign in August 2014 represented typical status quo political thinking, irrespective of the fact that the atmosphere he created to put his message across was embedded in revolutionary idiom and style. He was demanding accountability of “corrupt politicians,” which has been part of the age-old machinations of the military establishment. After his dismissal from power in July 2017, Nawaz Sharif turned his ire against the military leaders: again a repeat of Benazir Bhutto’s tactics in the wake of the 1996 dismissal of her government. There are now clear indications that in August 2014 Imran Khan was in contact with the guarantors of political, social and economic status quo in Pakistani society, the military. No less obvious is the fact that the second tier of the PML-N leadership is constantly in touch with the same guarantors of the system and status quo today.
In Western democracies, political parties act as a gatekeepers of the system. These political parties and the political establishment that they constitute don’t allow any outsider – whose thoughts, beliefs and social-political position in the society make him/her alien to the political culture of the society – to enter the top echelons of the power structures. This arrangement broke down in the case of the United States when in 2016 Donald Trump, absolutely alien to the political culture, entered the White House. In Europe, this arrangement is coming under strain because of the rise of populist right wingers in European societies (surprising as it may be to a Pakistani audience, such hard-line right-wingers are considered alien to the liberal-democratic cultures of Western European societies).
In post-Musharraf Pakistan, the military establishment has come to assume the position of gatekeeper to the Pakistani political system. The message that they have put out is clear: no move to cut down on the defence budget is acceptable and no innovative thinking on relations with India is acceptable if the military establishment is not part of the consensus developed by the civilian government to put such a policy in place. Ironically the same military leadership which objected to the Indian Prime Minister’s unconventional way of visiting the private residence of Prime Nawaz Sharif in Lahore – where he proposed the diplomatic adage “to have breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Lahore and dinner in New Delhi” – started projecting Pakistan as a regional hub of connectivity after sending Sharif into exile. Not surprisingly, with one eye still on the prime minister’s office, Nawaz Sharif has learnt his lessons and during the last one year has remained tight-lipped on foreign policy issues.
Political leaders who base their political victory on the size of Punjab will never allow a truly representative government in Pakistan
With most of the political leaders falling in line on key issues in which the military has an interest, the military leadership’s position as gatekeepers of the political system has been consolidated. The revolutionary style and idiom of the two leaders mentioned above make for good news stories. Their talk is even better in hoodwinking the popular support base. But there is no chance that anybody could enter the power corridors in Islamabad without the approval of the gatekeepers.
Anybody really interested in challenging the status quo would have to question three basic features of this system:
a) Distribution of resources and wealth has to be re-organized. In this system the Powers That Be have filled their private coffers using their dominance of the power structures as a tool. Any political leader who is not making the question of a new resource-distributive mechanism a central agenda of their politics is basically trying to deceive their own support base.
b) The Punjab-centric orientation of the political system and programs of mainstream parties will never be able to resolve the problems of democracy in Pakistan. We see that the Punjab-based leadership of two major political parties, PML-N and PTI, will pose the biggest challenge and obstacle to a truly democratic political system in Pakistan. Punjab will have to deemphasise its size and allow smaller provinces control over their resources. Political leaders who base their political victory on the sheer size of Punjab will never allow a truly representative government in Pakistan.
c) An India-centric foreign policy is a permanent fixture of our political system, which allows the military to take a major share of the economic pie and dominate the power structure. Any political leader who doesn’t have plans to address this situation is only deceiving their own self and their popular support base with revolutionary pretensions.
But here, I don’t want to sound as if I am claiming that the existing political system doesn’t have any advantages at all!
A sustained and uninterrupted political process based on regular electoral exercises will keep Pakistan from falling apart. But the political parties will have to push the boundaries and continuously struggle to broaden the social and political base of the system. This will require either a new redistributive mechanism or substantial economic progress that could increase the size of the pie. Nevertheless, again, this exercise should not be Punjab-centric as it has always been.