Attention all readers. This is not an obituary of the last government, the party that went out of power, or for that matter of the politics of its leader and former premier Imran Khan. Nor does this piece seek to thumb the nose at any of that. That is despite the month-long horror show that became pure torture on every PTI sympathiser’s soul. Or seek to ridicule the PTI’s loyal base. It only looks for an explanation, especially because in this charged environment none of the narratives proffered by the main political actors adds up.
Let me clarify the first part before anything else. After a long time, a party has enthralled the country’s younger population and people who seldom vote. Who is to say that their convictions are less valuable than yours or mine? Likewise, we have seen Mr Khan’s charisma in play whenever it was put to good use in the service of this nation. It works. Add to it some brilliant initiatives that were undertaken during his rule. From expanding the BISP to a much wider tent under Ehsaas, Langars (soup kitchens) and shelters for the extremely poor, and the health card for all. So, no I will not pile on. Despite the hopeless attempts to evade the final reckoning and its inaccessibility the party and its leader have earned my respect in more ways than one.
The PTI leadership claims that it has been a victim of a foreign conspiracy. It could have been but there is no smoking gun. A dispatch sent back home by the country’s ambassador cannot automatically be counted as one. Why? Because words are not deeds. Especially the ones assessed by a diplomat, not a trained investigator. For a cable to unearth a conspiracy it would need far more forensic evidence in it. For instance, apart from the perpetrator or instigator’s name and motives, it would contain the means adopted and an elaborate causal chain that connects deeds with action, and motives with the end result. And when the NSC statement calls the communication “blatant interference in the internal matters of Pakistan” it was more in the spirit of “mind your own business, you nosy git” rather than “we have unearthed a conspiracy”.
Let us disambiguate a bit. If you try to tell me how to write my column that amounts to blatant interference in my affairs. If you try to de-platform, kidnap and kill me to stop me from writing that amounts to a conspiracy. I know, why would you? But never mind. The subtle difference in the current situation and the scenario I just described is between ‘trying’ and what sounds awful like “threatening”. When you are caught trying you already have produced enough evidence to implicate you, when you threaten the prosecution has to go an extra mile to connect the threat with the action. For instance, you live in Europe, I live in Pakistan. One morning you threaten me through an email or a tweet. The next morning I am dead. There are people to whom the fact that you burnt my picture or figurine after threatening me might be enough to prove your guilt but that is not how it works. To prove your conspiracy the investigators and prosecutors would need the proof that either you traveled from Europe to Pakistan or hired a hitman to do so. From the money trail to conversation records everything would be needed and some proof that it is a better explanation than that I tripped and broke my neck. So for now it is “mind your own business, you nosy git” and nothing more.
Now the real whodunit. If there is no conspiracy how does an unprecedented vote of no confidence bring down a government? The opposition of yesterday and the ruling alliance of today have offered many explanations. For example, the PTI government oppressed the common man on the street so much that he took revenge in the end. But did you see any widespread agitation on the street? Any massive momentum outside the parliament?
The second explanation particularly emanating from the quarters that have claimed that the 2018 elections were heavily rigged concerns the former premier’s alleged tiff with the establishment. That he somehow managed to alienate the permanent institutions. There are many versions of this. From the alleged ambition of the incumbent military leadership to foreign policy choices to the deadlock over the appointment of the head of the country’s premier intelligence agency. Sadly, they do not fly either. The ISPR has set the record straight on the first.
Finally, there are dire explanations, particularly regarding corruption and attempts to steal the next elections through the use of the EVMs. But if unsubstantiated allegations were to be factored in then none of Mr Khan’s detractors would enjoy a second or a third chance.
If there is no such factor involved then how did the government collapse? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we? The PTI government had many strengths and weaknesses. But its biggest chink in the armour was its lack of homework in the economic domain. Consequently, soon after coming to power, the government had to rely heavily on military diplomacy to get financial bailouts. The Saudi and the UAE visits would indicate as much.
The second chink was its inflexibility. Due to this any attempt to find a way forward at crucial moments was becoming impossible. Add to it the narrative of electoral illegitimacy that the opposition was successful in pushing and you have the image of a civilian government increasingly becoming a liability for the permanent institutions.
The issue of liability is also interesting. Pakistan’s political system is possessed by entropy. The decay in the mandate and the ability to exercise power begins from day one and then it is a constant downhill journey. So, had it not been for the permanent institutions’ deterrence the previous government would have collapsed immediately due to its narrow majority.
Was there any straw that broke the back of the proverbial camel? The source of the inflexibility. There was a broadly held perception that the rigidity was due to superstition. For instance, Usman Buzdar’s implausible survival as the CM of Punjab. Makes zero sense otherwise. Even today you can hear people say that the end of his tenure brought you down. No sir. He stayed in power for so long because you were in power. Not the other way around. And in the end, he became an unaffordable liability that sank your boat.
If it is really about superstition dear readers then it is because of our collective failure to convince the former premier that he came to power because of the people’s vote, support, and prayers and not because of any supernatural causes. If he can be convinced even today a very important political career might be salvaged along with countless hopes and aspirations of the people. Otherwise, in the long tragic tableau of Pakistani politics, we have arrived at another heartbreaking moment.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2022.