What kind of political leaders does Pakistani society need? Certainly not the type that are currently in the running for a top position in the Pakistani political system. Not those who are presiding over a patronage network which doles out favours to their cronies whenever they are in power.
This patronage network could be a machine to divide the financial spoils or satisfy the influence-mongers among a leader’s followers. The patronage network gets operational the moment these two parties get into power. Their followers and members of the network get the major share of spoils, thus creating a system of extended patrimony that revolves around either family or a political club or party.
And we are not in need of those who represent or callously guard the social and economic interests of a single dominant class in the society. The political leader, who presides over a large patronage network of a dominant social or economic class to attain political power, will always stagnate the economic and social growth of the society through his policies. Yes, Both PML-N and PTI represent the interests of the Punjabi middle classes, predominantly residing in the central Punjab region. Of course, they have co-opted the lower classes and the poor, but always distribute a pittance among these classes whenever they are in power.
The Pakistani nation doesn’t need political leaders who are overly dependent on state machinery or coercive machinery of the state to get into power. The political turmoil that we are witnessing in our society since 2014 primarily represents a dominant trait of these political leaders and groups to always look towards the state machinery or coercive machinery of the state for favours, so that the power balance in the society could shift to their benefit in the dirty struggle for power.
Try to read beneath the surface when Imran Khan asks as to why the military establishment failed to block the alleged conspiracy against his government in April 2022. How can the military establishment block a political move by the opposition to remove the prime minister through a no confidence motion? It is because the military and its intelligence agencies control the coercive machinery of the state. They can make or break a parliamentary majority through the effective use of this coercive machinery of the state. They have demonstrated this capacity many times in the recent past. Imran Khan knows that. Even as he announces a Long March towards Islamabad from Peshawar, he begs the Supreme Court to issue a restraining order for police and other law enforcement agencies not to block the path of protest coming through highways and motorways towards Islamabad. A political party which claims itself to be the most popular political party cannot stage a protest in Islamabad without the patronizing hands of the state machinery or the coercive machinery of the state.
Is this attitude unique to Imran Khan? Not at all. Nawaz Sharif’s politics remained dependent on state machinery—intelligence agencies, judiciary, police and military— in the 1990s.
Why is a political leader who is dependent on the state machinery for political success not at all a good leader for Pakistani society? I am hardly presenting a manifesto for revolution when I say that political leaders should be independent of state machinery, or more precisely, the coercive machinery of the state. The point is that political leaders should not be in a permanent state of friction with the state machinery in a highly unstable country like Pakistan. After all, these political leaders have to preside over this state machinery when they come to power. But political leaders primarily represent the popular interest, o ther interests of the social and economic classes. They need to maintain a political identity distinct from the state machinery. Political leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, whose identity just dissolves into the larger identity of the state and its coercive power whenever the ‘crunch time’ comes, never gather the courage to stand up for victims of the state machinery’s high handedness – people like Azam Swati or Ali Wazir.
A cursory look at the attitudes of Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif while they were in power will lead the observer to conclude that they don’t have a slightest concept of a civil space or civil society. And now as the state machinery is increasingly indulging in curbing the political and civil liberties, a political leader who is himself dependent on the coercive machinery of the state would be of no use to people who are advocating or struggling for political and civil freedoms.
And lastly, Pakistan doesn’t need a political leader who diagnoses the ailments of state and society in the light of the electoral requirements of his political party. If making bridges, underpasses, highways and motorways will help you win elections, that doesn’t mean that the massive scale of Pakistan’s problems could be solved through this kind of developmental activity. If your voter is in some kind of overly hate-oriented relation with a political family, that doesn’t make corruption the core issue that Pakistani society is facing. Pakistan is increasingly becoming an ungovernable society—due to the existence within its territory of extremely violent groups who don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the state. Recent events put a large question mark on the financial viability of the Pakistani state. In our region, the political and military developments that are taking place will dwarf our state power. Climate change may be a remote danger in public imagination, and yet scientific knowledge tells us that Pakistan will be the most vulnerable country in the region in the next 10 years. In such a situation, the Punjab-centric direction of political developments in our society is weakening our ability to deal with the challenges that we will be facing in the next 10 to 20 years.
Whatever may be the outcome of the PML-N–PTI tussle, one should not expect any change in the power structure, and thus we can expect a further consolidation of the status quo, primarily because both these parties are Punjab-centric.
Time is running out for us. The type of political leaders that we have are good entertainment. Our chattering classes witness politics just as they watch a one-day cricket match. If they get bored with Pakistani batting or bowling, they switch to a news channels to watch Imran Khan’s speech at prime time. After watching a speech for ten minutes, they shift to any other entertainment channel. A cover drive, a good dialogue in a teledrama and diatribes in Imran Khan’s speech are equally entertaining for them.
Yet Pakistan’s political problems are multiplying with each passing day. In such a situation, Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif could become a good source of entertainment. But for serious political leadership we need to look somewhere else.