It was a sweltering mid-morning in the summer of 2004. A lawyer friend was acting on behalf of the Niazi family for preparing necessary legal documents for transferring different parcels of land held by Ikramullah Niazi on a general power of attorney to his daughters and the illustrious son, Imran Khan, then in his ‘youthful’ early fifties. I was invited to accompany him to the house in the leafy Zaman Park neighbourhood of Lahore, an offer that, like most people, I found hard to resist. Journalist Ahmad Noorani recently broke a story on a website called Fact Focus which revealed that the properties transferred to him by his father in 2004 were not declared by the former prime minister in his nomination papers filed in the election commission. As it turned out, those were the same properties that Noorani revealed on Fact Focus, some of which were gifted right in front of my eyes. As Imran hurriedly scribbled his signatures with the characteristic nonchalance while raising innocuous inquiries that a client usually directs at his lawyer, our minds were fixed excitedly on the conversation to follow relating mainly to the state of his politics.
Quite accustomed to taking charge of the conversation on account of his few-decades-old celebrity status coupled with his boyish enthusiasm and rather simplistic optimism, Imran was animatedly narrating how fruitful his trip to Sukkur had been from where he had returned the night before. My eagerness to commend him for his ‘selfless’ approach in terms of raising public awareness got the better of me and the conversation abruptly ended – signaled by Imran with a visible annoyance on his face as he almost angrily grabbed hold of a prayer rug and started praying in a corner of his rather austere drawing room.
Like a typically self-opinionated and ambitious superstar would react, a self-sacrificing opinion about him had palpably irked him. All I had politely suggested was that before him no traditional politician had raised basic public welfare issues like, health, education and drinking water etc. the way Imran had been doing, and that even if he never made it to the prime minister’s office, he could feel proud to have started an era of clean, issue-based politics. We all felt that way in those days, such was the nation’s love affair with the brand IK.
More than a decade-and-a-half later, the same pattern continues in 2022 with even a renewed ferociousness about his sense of competitiveness dangerously morphing into a steadily burgeoning grandiose narcissism, high on arrogance but showing little empathy for the common man’s travails. Pitted against a messiah who writes his own rules of engagement having scant regard for any national consensus reached through a constitution with his exaggerated self-image always taking the center stage in all matters political, the prospects of laying a foundation for a smooth economic recovery by the Shehbaz Sharif administration are not very bright. Imran Khan’s bizarre and quite fantastical claims of being ousted through a US conspiracy (another example of overly exaggerated self-image) may not woo many new voters before the elections but the ruckus created through political rallies and the clamour for a judicial probe may be enough to heighten economic and political turmoil in the days to come.
For his political opponents and his erstwhile allies in the military, Imran presents a package which needs to be handled with care for its aforementioned emotional fragility. At the same time, questions also need to be asked for how long self-respecting people of Pakistan – or of any nation on Earth for that matter – can acquiesce in and still hope to prosper in an atmosphere of constant political engineering. In mitigation one may give the army credit for upholding the constitution, which may be a first in our chequered history of military coups. The difference between 7 October 1958, 5 July 1977, 12 October 1999 and 10 April 2022 is that in all the instances of political deadlocks prior to 2022, the sole beneficiary has always been the army.
Is General Bajwa a trend setter, a window through which we can view the shape of things to come in the future? Can we conclude that this is the long-term institutional thinking and won’t just last till the end of General Bajwa’s tenure?
Leaving aside the cynicism that is quite natural to crop up while discussing the historical role of our military in national politics, this may be a rare moment to rejoice in the above context. Unlike the past, for the very first time, instead of imposing martial law in times of political crises, the military has chosen the constitutional path which may be our watershed moment. But is it? The jury is out on that and may be so for at least a decade before a definitive answer arrives. It will be a tough and unpopular decision inside the army to come down from their high horse of entitlement and swear loyalty to constitution, the only sure way of becoming a ‘normal’ country.
Notwithstanding the curious hostage-like situation the country of 220 million souls found itself in for a week awaiting the constitutional right of a parliamentary vote on a no confidence move, Pakistan out of nowhere managed to contrive a Netflix/Amazon Prime thriller showing an unpopular but impetuous ruler and his courtiers in a ruthless game of thrones, ready and willing to subvert the constitution. Anywhere else in the world it would have been regarded as a regulation and even a tedious and cumbersome activity kindling little interest. It goes without saying that the sight of a septuagenarian representative of impressionable millennials foaming at the mouth publicly in a teenager-like rage is a frightening prospect which might take a generation to reverse.
Some would argue that the self-loving ruler took far too long to take the decision of terminating the services of his top general. It is common knowledge that he had been voicing his intention inside his coterie of ministers and advisors of doing so for months, but fell short of pulling the veritable trigger.
The all-time great spaghetti-western classic, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, set in the times of the American Civil War, carries a lesson or two for a timely and decisive action for a ruler in such a situation. In a memorable scene from the movie, Tuco, a small-time bandit masterfully played by Elli Wallach, shoots his assailant while lying in his bathtub who takes far too long recounting the former’s crimes. After shooting his assailant in the chest, Elli Wallach utters an epic line, “If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk!”