The Art Of The Possible: Pakistan's Experience With Political Messiahs

The Art Of The Possible: Pakistan's Experience With Political Messiahs
In his interview in 1867 with St. Petersburgische Zeitunglt, the German aristocrat and first Chancellor of Prussia Otto von Bismarck described politics as “the art of the possible”. However, almost a century later, a famous American economist, diplomat and leading proponent of 20th-century American liberalism, John Kenneth Galbraith, disagreed with Chancellor Bismarck. He wrote to President John F. Kennedy in 1962 saying he believed that “politics is not the art of possible, it comprises choosing between the disastrous and unpalatable.”

Chancellor Bismarck’s quote is almost a cliché in every political conversation everywhere in the world. However, in every democracy, whenever people go to the polling booths, they do not think about politics as an art of possibility, they instead think about whom to vote for. When their assessments reveal that all the candidates have their baggage of issues, they vote for the ‘lesser evil’ in their opinion, with the understanding that if their candidate would not deliver, they would vote him/her out in the next election.

This is the beauty of the democratic system. It enables people to choose and later remove them in case they fail them.

In Pakistan, a large part of the society believes in the “Man on the Horse” —a messiah, with his magic wand, who will come and solve all their problems. When Ayub Khan snatched power illegally, the common people on the streets believed their prayers were heard by the heavenly forces, and these “martial law bhayyas” (men in uniform) would provide them with everything which they were deprived of. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto brought new hopes to the people, but just in six years when he was thrown out and later hanged by Zia-ul-Haq — another “messiah” — common people hardly made any noise in protest. When General Musharraf took over power, media reports said that people distributed sweets in the markets to celebrate the new “healer”. Lots of hopes were put on PPP government in 2008, then on the PML-N government in 2013 as well.

From 2008 onwards, because of the growth of social media, many people started taking part in the political system and political awareness escalated. However, the search for the messiah did not stop, because some powerful quarters used social media to preach to the young people that the available ruling elite was incapable, and all it cared about was increasing their wealth by looting the exchequer of the country and laundering the wealth to foreign countries, but that there still was a “Man on the Horse”, who is an honest man and doesn’t belong to the political dynasties.

So, in 2018, a “messiah” was brought to power after widespread poll-rigging by the security apparatus and, with 28% votes, he was helped to form the government. In 2019, the electronic media was given the list of 25 “difaii tajziakar” (defense analysts) — all retired generals — to be invited to the live talk shows. These so-called defense analysts hardly ever talked about defense-related issues. Instead, they vehemently defended their installed messiah while the other guests in the shows could not find the courage to counter them. The public relations officers of the Army repeatedly told the media to spread a positive image of Pakistan by “positive” reporting about their so-called hybrid setup.

Within three years, the military understood that their choice of redeemer was actually a complete calamity. The military became tired of running foreign policy, economic policy, managing the media, managing the parliamentarians, and even the judiciary on behalf of their “creation” and in response, he didn’t deliver any shred of good governance. His focus was to go after his political opponents and eventually anyone — even in his own party — who went against him. The parting of the ways appeared to become final when he intervened in military appointments.
His cronies, who had already become orphans after losing the support of the powerful security establishment, advised him not to worry about the opposition because they wouldn’t dare to move the vote of no-confidence in parliament

When the military announced its neutrality and desire to play its constitutional role, the opposition seized this opportunity and worked together to remove him from power to deprive him of the opportunities:

1) to nominate a new Army Chief of his choice,

2) to introduce election reforms through Presidential ordinances which would help him rig the next elections and get back to power with an even larger majority in the parliament.

The opposition parties, which were totally scattered and earlier were not even talking to each other, came together to move the vote of no confidence against him. A significant number of parliamentarians, who were raising voices inside the party for months and were facing the wrath of their leadership, decided to vote against their leader even if they would have to pay the price of losing their parliament seat.

Instead of talking to the dissenters and listening to their grievances, the messiah went to public meetings and began threatening them. He urged his supporters to assure the complete social boycott of party skeptics. The leadership—both male and female— made social media videos and threatened them with severe consequences which included attacks on their residences. This attitude further alienated the dissenters and annoyed those loyalists in the party who wanted to resolve the issues with dialogue. The messiah did not stop there. His cronies, who had already become orphans after losing the support of the powerful security establishment, advised him not to worry about the opposition because they wouldn’t dare to move the vote of no-confidence in parliament. The messiah bought this advice and started making fun of the opposition in public and boasted that he was praying for this move by the opposition and that these “rats” would be in his hands once they moved the resolution in the parliament.

Once the resolution was moved — and he observed that one by one his political allies, who were the pillars of his majority in the parliament, joined the ranks of the opposition — he tried to block the vote by initiating a conspiracy theory that the US government is supporting and funding the opposition parties to topple his government, because he told them “absolutely not” when they asked for airbases in Pakistan. He began claiming that he had initiated an “independent foreign policy” for the country. He based his allegation on diplomatic communication sent to the foreign office by the Pakistani Ambassador to the US. The country’s intelligence and the security establishment denied that there was any threat or conspiracy in the document. However, the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly—the staunchest loyalist of the messiah — rejected the no-confidence move because of the alleged conspiracy and the opposition’s alleged collusion with external powers against the sitting government.

As per the Pakistani constitution, the speaker of the National Assembly doesn’t hold the power to reject such a move without voting. After the Speaker’s ruling, the messiah asked the President to dissolve the National Assembly. This was a request which the President — another strong loyalist of the messiah — fulfilled, all the while providing no reason. He went on to send a letter to the former opposition leader and former prime minister — another messiah — to suggest the names for the caretaker government’s prime minister.

The Supreme Court took suo moto notice and formed a five-member bench that included the Chief Justice. The bench had hearings for 5 days, then it gave the unanimous verdict to reinstate the National Assembly and complete the no-confidence vote no later than midnight on 9 April 2022, Pakistan Standard Time. On 9 April, the speaker delayed the vote until 11:30 pm and when the Chief Justice ordered to open the court at 00:05 AM on the 10th of April 2022, and the jail vans were sent to the parliament, the Speaker tendered his resignation: he could violate the constitution but could not betray his boss—the messiah. He handed over the seat to the former speaker from the previous government to conduct business until the new speaker was elected, and then the vote of no-confidence was moved.

It was a simple constitutional process that is very common in parliamentary systems all over the world. The messiah could easily face the no-confidence, then try again in the next elections and could try to win again. Instead, he and his supporters made this simple constitutional process a battle between good and evil. The messiah knew very well that he cannot win the elections on his own. He would need military backing to rig the elections in his favour, which the military had refused to deliver. He frustrated the security establishment so much by spreading incorrect information on behalf of the military that their spokesperson had to come out and make clarifications. However, that did not work so well, because the messiah and his cronies contradicted some comments made by the spokesperson.

The people are asking: if the military claims to be neutral and its spokesperson’s statements contradict the claims made by the messiah, then why is it that all those journalists who were defending and propagating the agenda of the military from the day that Operation Messiah was launched are still supporting the messiah after knowing he was falsifying every truth? Experts suggest that there is an internal struggle inside the powerful institution between two almost equally powerful groups. Although the dominant group wants to abandon the Operation Messiah, the other group is still supporting the messiah because they do not believe in the other party and they believe in creating a neo-fascist rule, led by the messiah in Pakistan for at least 10 years, which they believe will allow them to tackle the corruption and other ills with iron hands in complete violation of the constitution.

Would it be possible?

It seems that in Pakistan dictatorships could never survive and after two to three years, every dictator had to form some kind of civilian setup to legitimise their rule. And when they did so, soon their nominees started asserting their authority, with the result that they had to remove the veil of democracy that they put on their faces. So, if anyone is planning something like this, they are bound to fail. Pakistan became a reality after a democratic process and now every institution and politician must understand that it was made for constitutional democracy, and it will stay like that. If anyone attempts any adventurism to convert it to something like Hitler’s Germany, they will eventually face the iron hands of the masses, regardless of whether they are some populist politician or some uniformed officer.

Now, if the military really has stayed away from politics in this episode, the civilian setup must provide them the space and the necessary support so that the military can perform their duties. The civilians must not involve top generals to mediate for them during their political differences with the opposition.

Although it seems a disastrous process so far, I am glad that I am among those lucky ones who witnessed a constitutional crisis resolved by the constitution and not by the intervention of the military.