The political situation in the country cannot be more out of touch with reality or more disconnected with the direction in which our society is heading. Imran Khan’s anti-corruption tirades are more helpful in projecting his image as an unwavering macho than it has got anything to do with bitter political realities our society is confronted with.
Nawaz Sharif seems more interested in recounting his ordeal at the hands of his distractors in uniform as this appears to him to be his only point that could salvage his sagging political standing. Neither Imran Khan’s aggressive political campaign nor Nawaz Sharif’s move to field his daughter as a loudmouth alternative to his own presence in Punjab’s politics will determine the political future of Pakistan. This messy and noisy politicking is something happening on the margins of the arena where the country’s political and existential future is being written.
While the players of the political game – the political leaders, judges, generals, spymasters and larger than life media personalities – are making their appearance on the political stage with increased frequency the irrelevance of all this noise to the country’s fate couldn’t be more starkly demonstrated than by the useless prattling of media and political leaders on TV news channels.
Occasionally, we hear generals and judges uttering something startling, but precisely tailored to the requirements of hourly bulletins of news channels. “We will defend every inch of the country… we will not allow any violations of the Constitution – the previous government is responsible for this economic downturn, Nawaz Sharif is the most corrupt person”, we hearing prattling of this sort day in and day out.
Emotions, melodrama and playing with the galleries is an art these players have become adept at performing. It is just like the way our Urdu press reports rape cases – instead of highlighting the tragedy, trauma, and plight of the victim of sexual assault, the incident is reported and presented as a sleazy story, in which the graphic details are made to sound like an X-rated movie. This is exactly how our media is reporting the economic meltdown the country is facing.
We have been in a state of turmoil since August 2014, and the media persons and anchors can still be seen asking stupid questions about the reasons behind the economic downturn. Political leaders who should have been busy in policy making to revive the economy can be seen thumping their chests for becoming part of an artificial conflict – a conflict in which both the alternates represent broadly similar socioeconomic interests and right wing conservative ideological leanings.
If you ask the leaders of PTI and PML-N what they are fighting over, they won’t be able to give a coherent and convincing answer. Consequently, political discourse in the country has been converted to a mudslinging match with no relevance to the existential dangers the country is facing at the present moment.
In my opinion, three issues will determine the political future of the country.
The economic viability of the country
Most economists agree that Pakistan has immense economic potential. Our rent-seeking ruling elite, however, have turned this country and its institutions into a textbook example of a rentier state. Past military governments, in an attempt to consolidate their own power, have empowered specific classes and groups into the commanding heights of the economy, who are least productive and are indulging in racketeering like business practices, making fortunes of their own from real estate speculation and other rent seeking activities. Our manufacturing capacity has taken a hit because of successive military governments promoting a rent seeking culture in the economy. Our exports are negligible as compared to our hefty import bills – a culture of easy money spent on imported luxury items has taken roots in our society. Negligible manufacturing and meagre production caused by political unrest have brought us to a situation where the economic viability of the state is in question. A narrow tax base has in no small way contributed to the financial unviability of the state. Immediate elections, a compromise or understanding between political rivals, some modicum of stability in civil-military relations or minor improvements in the law and order conditions will not change the reality that the recent events have brought the structural flaws of the country’s economy in sharp focus. Major global events like the American invasion of Afghanistan created a regional security situation that facilitated the flow of US dollars into Pakistani coffers in the first two decade of this century. There is no chance that American assistance will be revived, and neither are our own regional mentors as generous as the Americans were during the War on Terror.
What are the options? Structural changes in the economy offer the only way out for making the state economically viable. However, the grip of the rent seeking elite on the power structure will prevent this from happening. So, whether Imran Khan is the most popular leader in Pakistan or whether Nawaz Sharif succeeds in stealing the next elections with the help of the military establishment might be of marginal significance.
The big question is: does anyone know how to rescue the country’s economy? Can anyone turn around our lagging exports, our pitiful literacy rate or our terrifying infant mortality problem? Does anyone who has their sights set on occupying the corridors of power in Islamabad have a plan for how to empower the ordinary citizen?
There are so many tough questions to be asked about the economic viability of Pakistan, and yet no one has any good answers.
The dysfunctional nature of our political system
The personalities who are making the headlines in present day Pakistan are all from Central or Northern Punjab – Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, the incumbent COAS, the incumbent Chief Justice of Pakistan and all of the media brigade. These are members of the middle class from Central and Northern Punjab calling the shots in Pakistani political arena.
Irrespective of who wins the present artificial conflict, there is going to be no change in the power configuration of the country. Interior Sindh, Balochistan, South Punjab and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have always been marginalized by the Pakistani state. In the initial years, the marginalization of these areas was the result of decisions taken by a small group of civil and military bureaucrats. This has changed in the post-Musharraf period: now the marginalization of these areas has been an outcome of popular vote. It doesn’t matter whether Imran Khan wins or Nawaz Sharif, both will serve the interests of the dominant social classes and political groups based in Central and Northern Punjab. How the people on the margin view this artificial conflict between two completely identical political groups, identical in terms of their social composition and conservative ideological leaning, could be an interesting case study.
The Pakistani media is too busy reporting the useless prattling between Punjab centric political leaders. However, there is one new element in this conflict: now there are three contenders in the field for the loyalties of the Punjabi middle classes – the PTI led by Imran Khan, PML-N led by Nawaz Sharif and Pakistani Army, whose conservative leanings make the Punjabi middle classes its political stronghold.
There is an organic link between the rent seeking ruling elite and middle classes from central Punjab, which are addicted to state provided subsidies. The severe economic pressures of the status quo are putting a lot of pressure on these linkages. State provided subsidies are no more available. How the middle classes in Central Punjab will react is anybody’s guess. Nawaz Sharif presents a conservative option, whereas Imran Khan is the more chaotic alternative, with an attractive populist image. But just like everybody else, once in government, Imran Khan won’t be able to satisfy the subsidy hungry middle classes of Punjab. The Pakistani political system will continue to be as a dysfunctional as it was in the past. How long this political system with an extremely narrow social base will last is not very difficult to judge.
Persistent security threats on the western border
The TTP has witnessed a major resurgence as a security threat on Pakistan’s western border. With no finances in our coffer to launch a major military operation, the Pakistani state appears helpless in the face of growing assistance that the Afghan Taliban are providing to the TTP. Their cadre and leadership are still hiding in Afghanistan’s border towns and cities. Now the Afghan Taliban, a former terror and militant group, presents itself as a role model for militant groups across the region through its transformation into a state in a territory that is increasingly becoming a hub for international terror groups.
Fortunately, there is little possibility of the TTP succeeding in holding any part of Pakistani territory. But they can disrupt civic life in the country in a pretty significant way, as the two recent bombings in major cities have demonstrated. Keeping the Afghan Taliban as a “strategic asset,” while Americans were still present in the region have seemed like a good strategy in the past, but convincing the leaders of the Taliban group to abandon their support of the TTP may prove to be an uphill task.
Pakistan has no option other than defeating TTP in the battlefield. This may prove to be the easy part of our planned strategy. Convincing the world, especially regional actors, that Pakistan and Afghan Taliban are not one team will be more difficult, especially when Pakistan diplomats can be frequently seen in the multilateral forums, canvassing for the Taliban. This will become a bigger headache if regional terror groups currently based in Afghanistan will start attacking targets inside their countries with or without the consent of the Afghan Taliban.
It seems the future holds very grim prospects for traditional solutions inside Pakistan. Characters like Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif look like clowns, completely out of touch with reality in the developing political landscape that is the outcome of rapidly deteriorating economic conditions and security threats emanating from our western border.