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The fate of the republic

The seriousness of the crisis in Pakistan can be gauged from what is perhaps the most sobering of all the considerations as we begin to take account of the dead bodies, the burnt down public buildings and the amputated souls of powerful Pakistani decision-makers.

The Imran Khan mobs, the PDM coalition elites, the judges of the Supreme Court or the military as an institution – whoever ends up on top in this battle royale will be a weaker, more compromised, less functional version of what they were before the Vote of No Confidence that took down the Imran Khan government. If ever there was a case of, “if I go down, I will take the whole system down with me”, Imran Khan is offering a real time, live-streamed version of it. The system that curated and made Khan is now being razed to the ground by the very individual and entities that were supposed to have magically saved Pakistan from the fictional evil and corruption of all those not named Imran Khan.

Is any of this Imran Khan’s fault? If a wild, out of control, angry young teenager steals his father’s sports car parked in the driveway, and crashes it, perhaps the teenager is partly to blame. But maybe some blame is merited by parents that failed to teach the brat any of the values and responsibilities that all people should be brought up with. Khan may not be a teenager in age, but he has the energy, sophistication and moral appeal of an uber privileged fifteen-year-old: me, me, me, me, me.

‘Reining in the project once it goes rogue’ should have been the thickest and most deeply explored chapter in the Project Imran Khan file at Aabpara and GHQ, or wherever the retired and serving military and intelligence people sat and cooked up the 2011-2023 version of democracy. Instead, it seems there is neither one page, nor any file. Just, in the words of Taylor Swift, “blank spaces”.

Swifties know the lyrics to the current anthem here in Plotistan, but for the rest of us, a reminder of her folksy tribute to relations between political entities birthed by the military, and the military itself: “So it’s gonna be forever. Or it’s gonna go down in flames. You can tell me when it’s over. If the high was worth the pain. Got a long list of ex-lovers. They’ll tell you I’m insane. ‘Cause you know I love the players. And you love the game.”

Well, it is certainly going down in flames. There are 16 million new voters ready to cast their votes in the next general election in Pakistan. None of them were alive 18 years ago. I don’t think they are all dedicated Imranists. But they are certainly not sympathetic to the weird noises and uncomfortable silences of the PDM coalition.

Consider. The PML-N leadership is stuck in a time warp, unable to overcome the Sharif family’s sense of victimhood from the early 1990s, when Nawaz Sharif was Imran Khan. Or from 1999, when Nawaz Sharif was almost Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Or from 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 – when Nawaz Sharif was disqualified, jailed, and dismantled as a credible mobilizer of Pakistani voters. The Sharifs’ constant reminder of their victimhood is credible, but only for history buffs and sticklers for broad principles. It is a little bit harder to swallow for people that can see the comforts of Gucci and Prada from which this victimhood is constantly being feigned. Especially as they wonder if an honest day’s work can or does, in Pakistan, ever lead to similar sartorial choices.

The PPP is stuck in sand. It can credibly claim its central role in Pakistani wins like Lady Health Workers and the Benazir Income Support Programme – but to clap for these important initiatives whilst also holding one’s nose to prevent the stench from the epic misgovernance of rural and urban Sindh is a feat that will result in either breathing in the toxins, or pretending they don’t exist. The substantive contributions of the PPP to democracy and federalism are being evaporated every second that the party remains party to the repression against the PTI – and let there be no confusion: it is repression.

When Pakistanis – rural and urban, young and old, rational and irrational – align against the PDM and its military backers, they are not necessarily lining up behind Imran Khan. They are simply mobilizing against the stink of decades of what preceded them. An angry, frustrated and resentful mob isn’t right, ever. But it does have to be dealt with. And so the system is now seeking to deal with it.

The problem is that unlike the crowds that gather in Miranshah, or Awaran, or Gawadar, or in Dastgir, or at Pucca Qilla, there is enough Gucci and Prada in the crowds to make the crackdown be seen and heard at home and abroad. The repressive techniques employed by the state to shut down dissent have come home to DHA, Gulberg and F-7. The Zingers with cheese have come to roost. A gaggle of Aitchisonians with unresolved daddy issues are dismantling Pakistan – and the centrality of this kind of Pakistani to the republic makes this a matter of life and death for the state.

Relatively objective observers will panic. I have been in a state of panic for months now, knowing that the 90-day deadline for the provincial assembly elections was almost certainly going to be violated. Like so many constitutional violations that have preceded, and helped lay the path to the current polycrisis, there isn’t a lot that can be done other than point out the obvious. But the state, quasi-state and meso-state entities that are tasked with repression don’t panic so easily. This is for two reasons. One, the Pakistani military is really, truly battle hardened – or frankly, given its forays into the political space over the last decade, just straight up hardened. The second is that no military leader has ever had to account for his illegal interventions in politics.

Politicians always win the long game, but generals always win their postings. And since there is no real accountability for either, though there is certainly more pain for the politicians, there is no prize for guessing who the loser in all this really is. Ordinary Pakistanis have to deal with 40 per cent stunting, 40 per cent illiteracy, 40 per cent inflation, 100 per cent desperation and 0 per cent optimism. Life after this polycrisis will be harder, not easier for the ordinary Pakistani. In part this is why the expat Pakistani can afford to be so impassioned in their appeals for arson and destruction in service of the great Imran Khan’s immunity. The expat Pakistani will jump back in their Audis, Fords, and Q trains, and go home after their meetups at Times Square or in Knightsbridge. It is the ordinary Pakistani that suffers the sharp end of inflation, instability and hopelessness.

One night in jail for Imran Khan made no difference to his resolve to destroy everything in his path to prime-ministership. The absence of any chance of jail to his principal adversaries in the current faceoff makes certain that their resolve to resist his ambition will be equally, if not more robust and compelling. The family-based political dynasties that make up traditional parties may survive this chapter. The judges of the Supreme Court all know that their turn is not far off in the future.

All of these different elements of the Pakistani elite know that their jobs were not to cling to their jobs and the benefits, immunities and privileges that those jobs afford them. Their jobs were to serve the people. The primary instrument to serve the people are not good intentions, nor good speeches, nor good principles, nor good looks. The primary instrument to serve the people is the republic. And what is the republic? It is the amalgam of institutions, processes, mechanisms and devices in the country: courts, bureaucrats, GPS mapping, rules of business, laws and rules, taxes, levies and debt.

No one believes any of the constituent elements of the republic are designed to serve the people. When the noise from this battle royale dies down, all of the constituent elements of the republic will be even less effective in doing what they are supposed to do, with even less credibility and integrity in the eyes of voters – the 16 million new ones added to the rolls since 2018, and the old ones that have been suffering failure in the republic for decades. The real mystery isn’t what will happen to Imran Khan. The real mystery is what will happen to the republic that birthed him.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "The fate of the republic," The News. 2023-05-16.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Military leader , Accountability , Bureaucrats , Imran Khan , Zulfikar Ali Bhutto , Pakistan , GHQ , PMLN