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Uncertainty is the enemy

There are times when it can be helpful to look back at things of the past. For example, if we were to go back to the summer of 1958, we would observe an atmosphere of uncertainty.

When I think about that era, I remember joining a group of schoolboys, holding banners for our teachers marching for better salaries. Similar other signs of public unrest might have been there but all that came to a halt in October of that year. By late October, the generals had sent off governor general Iskander Mirza and took upon themselves the onerous task of fixing the country.

Who would have guessed that Ayub Khan’s military rule was going to be the first of the many attempts to send politicians into the wilderness to reform the body politic. As time passed, this became a tradition with minor tweaks. And to what end? Only to see the generals wooing the B teams of those same politicians to reach out to the ‘awam’ (people).

The country’s premier institution was given the task of political engineering, making and unmaking political alliances and also floating king’s parties, which would become orphans as soon as the tenure of military leaders ended.

Pakistan was not alone in going through spells of military rule. We shared the tradition with brotherly Turkiye (Turkey) and many other countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. At the turn of the 21st century, while serving as Pakistan’s ambassador to Argentina, I discovered that their last military ruler Gen Galtieri, who had been tried for subverting the constitution, was sentenced to life.

However, as a matter of respect to his age of over seventy, the general was serving the long sentence at his home. There were no more military coups. As I was talking to a serving Argentinian army officer at a diplomatic reception in Buenos Aires, he commented, “Sir, now we are standing in a corner.”

While the military has taken its hands off from ruling those places, it continues to be the arbiter in some countries notably Pakistan. Gen Bajwa’s famous statement that the military would henceforth be neutral rings hollow. Here we are, 65 years after the first martial law, groping for a way forward. All eyes are on the high command for clearing the uncertainties.

The chairperson of the PTI is not the first populist leader to be ousted from power. There is nonetheless a clear difference in so far as he was removed as premier through a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly, a first in the country’s history.

He had the right to assume the role of leader of the opposition but ordered his party leaders to abandon the assembly despite their reluctance to do so. Imran Khan again overruled his associates in dissolving two provincial assemblies, hoping to force the government to call fresh elections.

It is not necessary to go into the chronology of events to realize that we stand at the threshold of an uncertain future. Challenges at home and on our borders should wake up the stakeholders to rise to the occasion and strive for a national consensus on issues of national interest.

There are some similarities between the situation prevailing now and the coup de force delivered by Gen Ziaul Haq against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The breakdown of communications between arguably the most popular leader in the country and the establishment needs to be repaired to secure our nation’s wellbeing.

Our country requires to be credible and predictable, domestically as well as internationally, to spur large-scale investments. Local or foreign investors are unlikely to commit their precious capital in the prevailing unstable political environment. The military’s increasing role in economic strategy is not a sure way to convince international investors if they are not confident about what comes next.

History keeps repeating itself because we are not inclined to learn from past experiments. If we look at the ranking of Pakistan in terms of GDP, per capita income or exports, the country has been overtaken by some others who were way behind.

It is not for the state to indulge in business but to create an enabling environment to stimulate business and investment. The state must also pursue its crackdown on smuggling that causes grievous damage to the economy.

This brings us to an important question: Do we have a plan for what comes next? And I reiterate that uncertainty is the big enemy. We cannot afford to have the caretakers trotting all over without a schedule for the political process.

And let the high command not be overconfident about fixing the country without a representative government. Such fixing in the past has not worked nor have the king’s parties or B teams of the mainstream parties which invariably had to make way for leaders with grassroots support.

It is about time that the real caretakers decide to open lines of communication with all political leaders. They need to introspect about a political project that went awry and turned into a boomerang over time.

Now may be the opportunity for a moment of reflection perhaps to acknowledge that a popular party cannot be eliminated by preventing it from participating in elections. Imran Khan has erred in many ways, particularly by leaving the assemblies despite opposition from his party members.

There may be still time to accommodate his party in the political process. A gesture can perhaps be made by shifting him from Attock to his home which can be declared a sub jail.

M Saeed Khalid, "Uncertainty is the enemy," The News. 2023-09-22.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political process , Politicians , Imran Khan , Ayub Khan , Pakistan , Turkey , PTI