Politics Of Violence

Politics Of Violence
The events of last fortnight have showcased the unraveling of a political cult that had emerged with a bang and crashed with a whimper. The Imran Khan phenomenon had caught the fancy of the young and educated middle class, wearied and frustrated from decades of misgovernance and socioeconomic injustice, and hankering for change. “Things should change” and “things cannot go as they had always gone” were common refrains in the conversations in drawing rooms and public discourse in Pakistan. The general despondency of the masses and a yearning for a Deus Ex Machina echoed Mao’s famous maxim, “there is a great disorder under the heavens and the situation is excellent.” Pakistan’s burgeoning population and the troubling economic circumstances produced a combustible mix of ennui and angst.

People look for a Messiah and a deliverer under such circumstances to slough off the suffocating layer of hopelessness. History is witness to the rise of populism and fascism under similar circumstances. In Italy, the economic downturn and the humiliating return to neutrality after siding with Germany and Austro-Hungarian Empire had created a demand for change and national redemption. In 1921, Benito Mussolini capitalized upon that impulse and won the elections for the Italian Chamber of Deputies. He promised change and redemption of national honor. A charged cohort of young Italians answered enthusiastically to his clarion call and he marched onto Rome in 1922 at the head of 30,000 charged activists to claim Prime Ministership with no accountability to the Parliament.

His example inspired Nazi fascism in Germany, with Hitler trying to replicate Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1923 during the famous Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler also capitalized upon the national humiliation and anger over the Treaty of Versailles’ harsh conditions especially Article 231’s War Guilt Clause. The Treaty was an affront to the pride of the German nation and the pain was further exacerbated by the bad governance and poor economic performance of the Weimar Republic. Hitler raised slogans of redemption of German national honor and the need for lebensraum to expand the German economy to its rightful share in the international market. Hitler used propaganda, legal legerdemains and political sleight of hand to gain total political power through the “Enabling Act” of 24 March 1933 that allowed him to make laws without parliament and President Hindenburg’s approval. He banned all other political parties except the Nationalist Socialist German Worker Party (NSDAP). From there onwards, it was a one man dictatorship and the fascist reign of Nazis.

In the contemporary world, following the end of unipolarity, the emergence of regional challengers to the global powers’ rivalry has resulted in the rise of populism with fascist tendencies in several countries of the world. Some of the examples include Viktor Orban’s Hungry, Trump’s USA, Modi’s India, and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and the Bangladesh of Sheikh Hasina. The common traits of all the populist leaders with fascist tendencies are a reliance on cults of personality, hatred of political opponents, shunning of dissent, and an inebriating propaganda promising a utopia to the followers.

Imran Khan’s rise to political prominence was a result of a strong segment within the establishment that smoothened his ascent to power, having been carried away by the same sentiment for the need for change as experienced by the educated middle class. The rise of a political parvenu in Pakistan’s murky politics dominated by several non-political power centers was touted as the promised change for the masses. The jaded politics of the traditional political parties and their reputation for venality facilitated Project Imran, a derisive reference to the rise of Imran’s PTI as a political force. PTI and Imran Khan had excited great hope and for once, there was a Promised Messiah, clean as a whistle, compared to his corruption tainted political opponents.

The civil military divide that had bedeviled the Pakistani polity hitherto fore was now a distant memory. For the first three years of his tenure, the military worked hand in glove with him; so much so that he never tired of repeating the one-page mantra of civil military amity. For once in national politics, the bane of national politics, i.e civil military dissonance, was a thing of the past. What happened next however was a national tragedy and a saga of missed opportunities. Instead of capitalizing on that unique opportunity, Imran Khan adopted a cavalier mode of governance, imposing non-entities like Usman Buzdar as Chief Minister to the largest province of Punjab and handing over KPK to politically effete helmsmen.

The first U-turn from good governance was resiling from commitments of police reforms in Punjab which forced IG Nasir Durrani to resign from reforms assignment in disgust. Optics instead of substance was chosen as the governance model with countless U-turns after fantastic promises of millions of jobs and repatriation of billions of dollars stashed abroad by the purportedly corrupt Pakistani political elite. What actually returned home were 190 million British Pounds under the stewardship of a tainted accountability Czar into the coffers of a private businessman. There were certain laudable initiatives too like Ehsas Program and targeted subsidies to the poor, but the overwhelming focus on media projection and weak implementation strategy proved to be the undoing of PTI.

The inability to forge political consensus and accommodate contrarian political views resulted in a disproportionate reliance on intelligence agencies even for mundane political tasks. A social media reality was created through generous bankrolling of social media teams dominating the digital space, producing a diurnal flood of political propaganda, building the great leader cult and projecting his banal utterances and prosaic political statements as great feats of statesmanship. The rousing welcome from a USA visit at Islamabad Airport was a foretaste of the coming madness for discerning minds. A focus on optics led towards the need for a constant supply of narratives in praise of the great leader and superlative achievements.

When the ugly stench of the ground reality ultimately caught up with the heady scent of social media fantasy after three years of his reign, Khan’s popularity waned. His desperation to hang onto his preferred intelligence chief got him in trouble with the strongest institution of the country. The rumours of occult science driving national policies also gained traction as the military was miffed due to his erratic decision making. The Army was coming under a lot of criticism for sticking with Imran to pull his political chestnuts out of the fire, decided to distance itself from any political errands ordered by a prime minister politically estranged from Parliamentary opposition. What followed is recent history - how he was voted out from power through a vote of no confidence.

Instead of accepting the outcome of a political process graciously, Imran Khan acted like a fast bowler and went for the kill. He came up with a cipher story based on a routine communication from Pakistan’s Ambassador to USA, accusing USA and Pakistan’s military establishment of conspiring together to push him out of power. The Twitter handles of PTI went wild with accusations of sell out with hash tags of imported government and regime change hitting millions of hits. The accusation was rebutted by the government and the Foreign Office but no logic, rationality or dose of reality could alter the trance of the followers going ballistic over the stentorian commands of a charged Imran Khan thundering from the podiums in his daily round of political rallies.

Populists with fascist proclivities reject dissent, create mass following and rely on propaganda as a tool to create an environment of total compliance to the diktat of the leader. Imran followed the populist route instead of acting as a democrat and biding his time to ride back to power on his popularity. He instead displayed an impatience for power and did not have any qualms in using false narratives like the cipher conspiracy even at the peril of national security. It was amusing to see him recant his USA conspiracy stance in the shape of a volte face over the issue and shifting blame from USA to the establishment for his ouster. He also had no qualms hiring lobbyist firms in the USA to earn the good will of the US Administration. The worst optics was his audio leaks importuning a US Congresswoman to plead for him in US Congress.

Another foible from Imran Khan were his attacks on the military establishment. He tried to create a wedge between the leadership and the institution through accusatory statements and the virulent advocacy of a complaisant cohort of retired senior officers, entranced by his populism. The Pakistani populace that had always revered its army and its leadership looked with shocked disbelief as Imran opened up floodgates of vituperative accusations against the military leadership. The restraint and circumspection of the military leadership was perceived as timidity as the march of the folly continued. The entranced followers of the populist Khan followed his every utterance like a Pied Piper and amplified his message on social media with unprecedented virulence. The above created paranoia and a hate psychosis amongst his charged followers.

Like an archetypical populist, he started making fantastic promises in successive speeches and when those promises never materialized, the frustration of his followers multiplied. He had to invent another narrative to justify non-fulfillment of previous promises until the expectation bubble burst. In a fit of apparent depression induced rage, he committed political hara-kiri by dissolving two provincial assemblies and bringing the curtain down on his well-entrenched provincial governments in Punjab and KPK, against the advice of his party stalwarts. He hoped to force early elections by this artifice. When a political coalition comprising the seasoned politicians refused to fall for his stratagem, citing the need for one election for federal as well as provincial assemblies as a constitutional as well as financial imperative, Imran Khan started skating on thin ice through politics of agitation. The role of the judiciary in this whole episode also came under scrutiny with some audio leaks and the composition of the benches deemed partisan due to the purported political bias of some of the judges.

Imran had continually rebuffed the idea of talks with PDM haughtily and only agreed to send the party’s second tier leadership for talks after much bad blood had been created due to political polarization. Having boxed himself in a corner politically, he cultivated a cult status. He developed a narrative that the great leader could not be arrested, a message internalized by his charged followers as a sacrilege to the honor of their great leader. Instead of facing the courts, he employed dilatory tactics to avoid the courts and when the courts issued arrest warrants, he used street power to avoid courting arrest. A new precedent was being created, where a political leader was accompanied by mobs inside the courts.

When finally arrested for investigation in the Al Qadir Trust case, he gave a call for action to his followers. That was the crossing of the Rubicon, when a populist turned fascist. From fiery rhetoric, it transited to violent action. The world and the country looked with disbelief at the bizarre spectacle of mobs attacking the GHQ gate and vandalizing a Corps Commander’s residence at Lahore. The sheer distaste of the spectacle of a military commander’s burning residence and the shopping mall i.e CSD belonging to army in Lahore created public revulsion and anger amongst the military rank and file. The remarkable restraint shown by the military to save lives was construed ruefully as pusillanimity and the inflammatory rhetoric continued.

The above was a steady drift into anarchy at a time when the scourge of TTP terrorism had reared its ugly head on the country’s Western borders. The state ultimately struck back to restore sanity. Despite getting unprecedented relief from obliging courts, the sanity did not return till the retributive arm of the state swung into action to rein in the march of fascism. The series of audio leaks on social media keeping aside the angle of legality indicate a collusion between PTI and the national institutions that need to be perceived as totally free of political or personal bias. The legality of the audio leaks becomes a secondary issue when national security is at stake in a toxic brew of fascist political tactics and bending of the law to personal political preferences. The leaks might therefore act as the thermometer indicating the temperature afflicting the febrile body politic of the Pakistani politics.

The leaks indicate just how deep we have sunk in the morass of political partisanship and how strong a hit has been taken by our institutional scruples. When those instigating violence or the unscrupulous conduct are caught on audios by technology, it is incumbent upon the state to establish the accuracy of those leaks. Any attempts to evade inquiries into the genuineness of the leaks would do no service either to the cause of justice or the personal reputation of those featuring in those leaks. When a hybrid war is imposed upon the country, the considerations of national security always trump personal freedoms.

Finally, it needs to be remembered that when the Rubicon is crossed, consequences are expected. Those who attacked civilian and military property and vandalized residences need to be brought to justice. A political party that rejected dialog and political accommodation disdainfully cannot extend hands for dialogue when its violent activists have looted and burned public property. The offer of dialog to evade accountability is a subterfuge that should be rejected till the time a public apology is not rendered by the instigators of violence and they have expiated their sins in the purgatory of legal trials for their transgressions. Sans above, the march of fascist folly dressed as politics shall continue.

The writer is a PhD from NUST and Director Islamabad Policy Research Institute.