Disruptive and dangerous

Ghazi Salahuddin
Sunday, Apr 24, 2022

With my absence from this space last week, I feel that I have a larger vista of Pakistan’s politics to cover. And the past two weeks do contain multitudes, in terms of the traumatic transformations that have been set into motion. We have to contend with some new realities – and new illusions. Meanwhile, the abiding problems of our existence are quietly becoming more menacing.

But before I proceed, a little disclaimer. My wife and I are travelling in Europe, with our base camp in a little town in northern Italy where our younger daughter lives. I am writing these words in Lisbon, crowded with tourists in the midst of this receding, enigmatic pandemic.

I need to explain that this is a long distance view, not sure how being in Europe for over a week now would influence my emotional response to what is happening in Pakistan. It does matter that I feel so strongly about the derelictions we suffer in our homeland and these are particularly “the times that try men’s souls”.

Across the entire spectrum of the ongoing political developments, the change in regime being at the heart of it, one dominant task of the observer is to reflect on the Imran Khan phenomenon and what it means for the survival of democracy and of democratic values in Pakistan. We are entering, in that respect, a dangerous territory.

With whatever shortcomings that our democracy has functioned so far, Imran Khan and his party’s ouster from power was effected through due process. The devices that Imran Khan had resorted to in his no-holds-barred attempt to thwart this process would certify his obsessive resolve to block his political adversaries’ ascent to power. We are now witnessing the fury of a cult leader scorned.

Looking at it from a different angle, the role that the Supreme Court of Pakistan played in upholding the dictates of the constitution and burying, as they said, the doctrine of necessity inspires hope in the future of our democracy. But the campaign that Imran Khan has mounted, arousing passion in his freshly enthused band of supporters, is increasingly becoming a threat to the democratic process of resolving our fundamental conflicts.

Already, PTI activists are spouting venom against the Supreme Court judges who passed the crucial judgment. The so-called establishment has also been their target, this time for its avowed neutrality. But everything that they do or say is ephemeral, depending on the moment’s whims of their leader. That is how the PTI is now becoming more of a cult than a political party that soberly reflects on a developing situation and defines its strategy to deal with it.

In that sense, the PTI may be a better expression of what Pakistani society has become than other mainstream parties. Not for nothing was Imran Khan designated as Taliban Khan, without losing the support of his Westernized and socially liberated followers. In fact, we are now finding evidence that the extremism and intolerance that we thought had infected the orthodox sections of our society has also seeped into some sectors of our urban elite.

One measure of what our society has become is the behaviour of the mob that easily lapses into violence. Last week, we observed the fifth anniversary of the lynching of Mashal Khan which had happened on the campus of a university, with the involvement of post-graduate students. Whether it is by design or not, Imran Khan’s party has excelled in using foul language against its adversaries.

There is a manifest lack of civility in the PTI’s political activities and pronouncements. This is how the seeds of fascism are being planted in Pakistan’s body politic. This point was highlighted in a graphic manner during the Supreme Court hearing earlier this month. Lawyer Salahuddin Ahmed had drawn a historical parallel to the PTI’s refusal to count the votes in the National Assembly: Germany, 1933.

Sadly, the political alliance now in power will not be able to creatively resolve this crisis of democracy by setting the country on the path of social harmony, peace, tolerance and meaningful human development. It is bound to be overwhelmed by its immediate task of putting its economic house in order. The challenges are daunting and the freedom to operate is restricted.

Now, will the revelations about Imran Khan’s stint in power that are beginning to emerge matter for his followers? Ostensibly, not, though the toshakhana story in itself is sufficient indictment of a leader who was put on a pedestal as incorruptible. In any case, the story of who Imran Khan is in terms of his loyalty to principles and individuals who contributed to his struggle for power has not yet been fully explored.

But, in the immediate context, Imran Khan is riding a wave, propelled by an inherent capacity of our people for protest and airing of grievances. How far his politics of rallies and incendiary speeches will carry him is yet to be seen. The tempo that Imran Khan is building could be translated into PTI votes if elections are held within a few months. That, however, is not feasible.

So, how is this situation likely to develop? On Thursday, an expectedly large rally in Lahore concluded the first phase of the PTI protest. Here, Imran Khan announced the launching of a movement for ‘haqiqi azadi’. A day of prayers will be held on the 27th of Ramazan and then people will have to wait for a call to congregate in Islamabad.

In his Lahore speech, Imran Khan claimed that he did not want a violent confrontation and he obliquely asked those who exercised power in this country, in a deviation from his insistence that he was ousted through a ‘foreign conspiracy’ to make amends for the mistake that was made. But there are others, such as Sheikh Rashid and Fawad Chaudhry, who have raised the spectre of a civil war if elections are not held readily.

What a civil war would actually mean is too scary to imagine. Yet a very toxic and socially disruptive polarization is visibly taking shape. And this does not bode well for Pakistan.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: