Imran Khan's Belligerence Is Not A Real Threat To Pakistan’s Political Order

Imran Khan's Belligerence Is Not A Real Threat To Pakistan’s Political Order
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s comments about threats to the political system is interesting, but inherently vague. Maybe it was intended to be vague to keep the people guessing. No force is identified, who according to Sharif was making a final push to wrap up the system. This apparently serves two purposes: firstly, it goes well with the narrative that the ruling PML-N coalition was constructing prior to elections in Punjab’s provincial assemblies. PML-N is making its best efforts to put up an anti-establishment face and is trying to portray itself and its leaders as the victim of the establishment’s high handedness.

Secondly, it doesn’t apportion blame on any one in particular and therefore jells absolutely perfectly with the requirements of being in the government in Islamabad not to annoy any particular person or force or group in the country. In his address to the Senate, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif expressed fears some forces were at work to make a final push to wrap up the system. During his address, the premier observed that there’s a total defiance in Pakistan at present. “I have seen difficult times in the country, but never like the current circumstances.” According to PM Shehbaz, the efforts seem to be aimed at bringing the system of the country to a total collapse.

Historically speaking, Pakistan’s political system has faced three kinds of threats to its survival in the post-Musharraf period—threats which could be considered serious in terms of their coming from organized groups, with weapons, training and motivation to overthrow the system. Firstly, the most potent threat to the survival of the system has always originated from the military as an institution which has the firepower, manpower and organizational strength to overthrow the system. In the past, the military has overthrown the system with only threat, and absolutely no use of violence. Secondly, ethnic nationalists from Balochistan have made a low-key attempt to overthrow the system with the use of violence, although their endeavors have remained limited to the province of Balochistan. They have a role model in the ethnic-nationalist movement of Bengali nationalism which led to civil war and ultimate dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971. Put simply, the Bengali nationalists succeeded in overthrowing the system.

The Baloch tried their luck in the period between 2006 and 2022 and in the absence of major outside military and financial assistance, their attempt has always failed. Thirdly, we have the religiously inspired militia in the shape of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which have attempted to overthrow the system through the indiscriminate use of violence. The Pakistan military overwhelmed them with their superior firepower and organizational strength. Military and political historians and experts are almost unanimous in their view that in the presence of an organized military force in society, no group or political party could overthrow the political system.

So, in our case TTP and Baloch rebels miserably failed to overthrow the system. Then why did Bengalis succeed? They succeeded primarily because their movement was backed up by direct military intervention by India. It was not the Bengali political groups which overthrew the system in 1971. It was the Indian military, which defeated the Pakistani military and overthrew the political order in Eastern Pakistan.

However, the Pakistan military itself has overthrown the system four times in Pakistan’s history. And in the post-Musharraf period, we saw military leaders coercing political leaders and the system many times to get their way. So, the Pakistan military has the power and strength to protect the system from any armed and violent force that exists in the society. But at the same time, our political system is vulnerable to military adventurism.

Can we contemplate a situation where our system implodes or is overthrown from withing while the military is still loyal to the political and constitutional order? Let me explain.

Prime Minister, Sharif’s blinkered views about threats to the system have come on the for the first time. This doesn’t mean threats to the system have only recently surfaced. They have existed for quite some time. Its only that our ruling elite have conveniently ignored these threats. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is apparently referring to Imran Khan and his alleged backers in the military and judiciary—though he is not courageous enough to identify them clearly. But the threats to the system that actually exists on the ground dwarfs this “unholy” nexus between one political leader, Imran Khan and his alleged backers in the judiciary, military and intelligence services. There is no doubt that Imran Khan has been getting support from within the state structure since he was ousted from power. But this would have been a tiny issue in a stable and vibrant political system. I think it is still a tiny problem as far as the system’s survival is concerned. A little enforcement of discipline and a little public pressure could do away with this problem.

But this system could collapse as a result of two interrelated social and economic problems that no government in Pakistan’s history have ever attempted to solve. These are the narrow social base of the system, and the rapidly shrinking economic pie of our society.

Narrow social base

One recent book on the country’s political system clearly identifies the middle class as the dominant political class of our society. Whether this middle class is from Central Punjab, Karachi or some urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, resource allocation at the federal and provincial level is done to appease this class. Our judges of the superior courts, our generals, leading journalists and business professional all belong to this class. Our political discourse is middle class centric, and even this discourse is dominated by the Punjabi middle class.

For instance, the newly risen Baloch middle class has taken up arms against the state since 2006 primarily on the grievance of unfair distribution of sources, political power and influence. This narrow social base creates opportunities for adventurism. Not surprisingly, the military governments continue on the path of appeasing this same middle class after coming to power. Peasants, industrial labor, and a myriad of other downtrodden classes and groups remain underrepresented or are not represented at all in the political system.

Our political system has an inherent bias in support of the middle class’s ethos, since only those political leaders rise to the top who display middle class values and ethical standards in their day-to-day behavior. Anyone who doesn’t fit into this middle-class frame is generally abhorred in our media and political discourse. With this kind of narrow social base of society, the political system becomes a plaything for adventurism. This narrow base is a major threat to the survival of our system.

Shrinking economic pie

Pakistan’s economy is expected to grow by only 2% during the current fiscal year. According to the World Bank’s October 2022 Pakistan Development Update, “Inflation and the Poor, the slower growth will reflect damages and disruptions caused by catastrophic floods, a tight monetary stance, high inflation, and a less conducive global environment.  Preliminary estimates suggest that – without decisive relief and recovery efforts to help the poor – the national poverty rate may increase by 2.5 to 4 percentage points, pushing between 5.8 and 9 million people into poverty.”

Macroeconomic risks also remain high as Pakistan faces challenges associated with a large current account deficit, high public debt, and lower demand from its traditional export markets amid subdued global growth,” reads another World Bank Report. The shrinking economic pie could be described as one reason for the narrow social base of the system. Our economy shares economic affluence only with the upper crust of society. Lower strata don’t get much from our already shrinking pie. This shrinking economic pie is at the heart of the threat our political system is facing at present as economic scarcity generates political and social unrest that could manifest in a culture of protest across Pakistan.

Imran Khan’s linkages with the military and intelligence are minor problems that don’t necessarily pose a central threat to our system. If Prime Minister Sharif thinks that Imran Khan or his joint machinations with a segment of the intelligence services poses a grave threat to our system, he is dead wrong.

This is a discipline problem, which have always existed and which could be overcome by those at the helm of affairs. The real threat is that this system has alienated large segments of the society through its rich and mighty centric economic policies and people like Imran Khan just know how to exploit the discontent generated by this sense of alienation.

The three groups mentioned above, which have always existed in one form or the other as potential overthrower of the system may mutate into much more sinister forms if we don’t broaden the base of our social system or if our economic pie continues to shrink in the coming years.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is just late in realizing the gravity of the situation, or maybe he has yet to realize the magnitude of the situation. He is still saying what an ordinary bureaucratic mind perceives as a threat -- clashes between opposition political party workers and police on Upper Mall Lahore, with Geo Television giving a blow-by-blow account of the events, routinely ignoring the underlying social and economic causes of the problem, which would ultimately lead to collapse.

The conditions of social and political unrest, which could take many forms, on account of a shrinking economic pie and a narrow social base, would increase the intensity of centrifugal forces, and could ultimately lead to creation of revolutionary situation. And in such situations, the loyalties of the military will be of little help in avoiding anarchy.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.