Perpetual Political Conflict In Pakistan Is Making Disaster Inevitable

Perpetual Political Conflict In Pakistan Is Making Disaster Inevitable
Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan are byproducts of military establishments and political engineering projects launched in different eras of Pakistan’s political history. Both of them were launched, separately though, in order block the return to power of popular political leaders and to ensure enough space for the military establishment to maneuver in an environment where the rise to popularity of a political star was creating problems for the military leaders, and subsequently shrinking their space to act to secure their political, economic and financial interests.

Nawaz Sharif represented the interests of the rising middle class in central Punjab, whose interests and boisterous urban lifestyle was heavily subsidized by the state under the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq. These were the Punjabi industrialists and big traders who benefited heavily from military government’s liberalization policy. The Zia regime’s economic performance was dismal, but he returned the lucrative industrial units and banking and financial institutions nationalized during the Bhutto era back to the original owners. The business elite in Punjab’s urban areas benefited from this denationalization policy and provided the backbone for anti-Benazir Bhutto politics in 1988, which was led by young Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif’s linkages with the military establishment and intelligence services of Pakistan in 1988 onward is an oft-narrated story. Nawaz Sharif continued the policy of heavily subsidizing the middle class lifestyle of Punjab’s urban classes. Soon he created a constituency for himself in Central Punjab and became genuinely popular. This was the time when he embarked on a collision course with the high handed military establishment and started to make a niche for himself in Pakistani politics.

Autonomous political actors are not much liked in Pakistan’s power corridors, especially when these autonomous actors start to assert themselves on issues which are identified as vital state interests by the military establishment. Relations with India are one such area where the military establishment doesn’t seem to like autonomous political actors asserting themselves. Nawaz Sharif on this count was not only assertive, he was extremely secretive in what he intended to do.

Here, Imran Khan was launched as a Trojan horse. Under President Asif Ali Zardari, most of the leading political players reached an unstated consensus to keep the military out of politics. This was in the wake of PPP’s parliamentary victory in the 2008 general elections. Nawaz Sharif, who came back to Pakistan after eight years of exile under military rule of Musharraf, was an enthusiastic advocate of this anti-military consensus. The military, under Musharraf, received a lot of battering and its popular image took a nosedive as a result of its close association with the Americans. The military was able, under Musharraf’s successor, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kiyani, to revive its image among the urban middle classes with its cunning media projection as an anti-terror and anti-militant force in the period between 2007 and 2014. The perceived success against  militant groups boosted the confidence of the military's leaders and it also bolstered a sense of entitlement among the rank and file, and among those who matter in the political arena.

Project Imran Khan was the outcome of this increased sense of entitlement and confidence that the military leaders gained from its rising approval rating—public opinion polls during General Kiyani’s tenure showed improved approval rating for the military leaders—and apparent defeat of the militant groups in the tribal areas.

Imran Khan was the optimal representation of the military class’s historical political aspirations; he was the practical manifestation of the military’s political aspirations. In this view, politics and politicians are inherently bad. Democracy doesn’t match our social, religious and cultural values. Last, but not the least, political leaders are deeply involved in financial corruption. Imran Khan picked all of these themes from the grand strategic program of the military class, which historically military officers of every age have always advocated in their political attitudes, and for the first time in the country's political history, popularized these themes as popular slogans. From Ayub, to Yahya, and then to Zia and Musharraf, military leaders of every age have done their utmost to make these themes popular slogans. All of them failed.

Imran Khan however, succeeded in integrating these anti-politics themes into his political program. So, Imran Khan was the military's dream come true.  Now, Imran Khan’s narrative is basically a mix of anti-politics, anti-politician and anti-elite political programs. He is exploiting the popular feelings against elite culture, the elite dominance of political life and the commanding heights of the economy.

But Imran might have overestimated his popularity when he picked up a fight with the military establishment on his way to becoming one of the most popular leaders in the country. Imran Khan is a great opportunist—he doesn’t mind cashing in dormant anti-military sentiments among the downtrodden segments of the society on the way. Ironically, the military leaders of the time didn’t realize that they were banking on the politics of someone who is a populist.  They did not compute that the common man of Pakistan perceives the military leaders as part of the elite. Therefore, it's easy to bank on grievances that the common man feels towards the military’s leadership —the same leaders whom Khan perceives to be behind his ouster from power.  In this way, Nawaz Sharif was a byproduct of political engineering to counter Benazir Bhutto, while Imran Khan is a byproduct of political engineering to counter Nawaz Sharif.

From our history and our geography, we should learn two lessons. First, all this political engineering is taking place within the confines of central Punjab. So, the geographical expanse of this political or anti-political activity is very restricted. If one Punjab centric party or leader is ousted from power, another will replace him. Our national political discourse is limited to the aspirations and interests of people and elite from Central Punjab. What will become of the rest of Pakistan? The periphery doesn’t even figure in political narratives of the two major political parties. What are their political aspirations? What are their political, economic and social interests? How much freedom do they enjoy? Is the Punjab centric nature of our political discourse, political development and debate leading to alienation of other ethnic groups and nationalities who reside on the periphery? Nobody cares. This is dangerous, to say the least.

In the face of all this noisy, but ultimately artificial political conflict, Pakistan appears to be a rudderless boat in a chaotic and threatening ocean. Our state and society don’t seem to have any strategic direction. Recent circumstances have deprived us even of our traditional objectives, which we used to relish and which we used to strive hard to achieve. We are just at each other’s throat, while our rudderless boat is gradually but surely heading towards a shipwreck.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.