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#4567, 21 July 2014


Domestic Politicking in Pakistan: It's Not Cricket, Stupid!
Sushant Sareen
Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation

For someone whose understanding of politics is limited to drawing banal cricketing analogies, the phrase ‘it’s not cricket’ aptly describes the sort of politics Imran Khan is indulging in these days. His threat of leading a ‘Long March’ (how Mao must be twisting in his grave over the Pakistani mutilation of the original Long March) to Islamabad to shake up the political system – he is himself isn’t clear on what he actually wants – is not cricket because it brazenly violates the basic rules of the political game set in the constitution. It is also not cricket in the sense that a five year term in government is not the same as a five-day test match in which the two contending sides get to play two innings each. 

That Khan isn’t clear on what he hopes to get out of the ‘Long March’ (or is it Tsunami March or Azadi March?) is evident because he keeps shifting the goalposts depending on what catches his fancy at a particular time. He started with demanding a vote verification in four constituencies, went on to demand a mid-term election, retracted to demanding an audit of the entire election (inspired by Afghanistan).  The end-game – how he hopes to get his demand met, what he will do if the government continues to stonewall, and what the consequences of any widespread disturbance in Islamabad could be, including the outside chance of a derailment of the democratic process – has obviously not been thought through by him. Not only is his timing wrong (barely a year after the general election he is demanding a mid-term poll), he has also not factored in the possibility that even if he managed to grab power, he would then be faced with similar efforts to overthrow him. In other words, it will be back to the sordid politics of the 1990s.

Imran Khan suddenly became hyperactive against the government after the military establishment seemed to get into a tussle with incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government leading many analysts to suspect that he had been put up to the task by the powers that be. Despite being seen as riding on the back of the military to queer the pitch for the Nawaz Sharif government, Imran Khan was careful to keep parroting his commitment to democracy, even though he is doing everything to undermine it. Even if he can’t force the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PMLN) out of office through his agitation, he would have weakened the civilian dispensation to a point where it would be forced to lean on the crutches of the military, or at least remain extremely diffident, before the military. That the PMLN government has come to such a pass with just about a year in office is a sorry statement on the fragility of the democratic process in Pakistan.

It is not just Imran Khan who is on the march against the government. The somewhat comical cleric from Canada, Tahirul Qadri, has also been on the warpath, selling an instant revolution to his acolytes as if it were some kind of instant coffee. Politically, Qadri is a non-entity. But like many other God-men, and such like in the subcontinent, Qadri has his following which probably runs into a million or more. His game is even less nuanced than Khan’s because he makes no bones about completely overthrowing the system. Ironically, he calls his ‘revolution’ legal and constitutional! Qadri has been given a leg up by the horribly botched strong-arm used by the PMLN government against Qadri’s Lahore headquarters, killing around a dozen people and injuring some 100 in police firing. 

Individually, however, neither Qadri nor Khan can oust the government. Hence, efforts by quintessential establishment flunkies and Tonga politicians (whose support base can fit on a horse-driven Tonga) like the Chaudaries of Gujarat and Sheikh Rasheed of Rawalpindi to bring them together. But this appears to be an uphill task because while Khan has some kind of a stake in the system, Qadri is a misguided missile seeking to destroy everything without any clear idea of how and what to replace it with. What is more, they have their problems on who will lead and their suspicions on who will retreat first leaving the other in the lurch. Meanwhile, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which was fast becoming irrelevant and leaderless, with Asif Zardari in his bunker, Bilawal active only on twitter and the party is disarray, disunited (especially in Punjab) and directionless, has also started making noises against the government and in support of Khan. But even if the PPP joined the opposition ranks, unless the army casts its lot with the forces arraigned against the government, it is unlikely that Sharif would lose power anytime soon. 

Despite its problems with the government, the army doesn’t seem quite ready to either force mid-term elections, or usher in a medium-term interim government of technocrats, or even take over power directly. Even the praetorian Pakistan army knows that doing any such thing would tantamount to jumping from the frying pan into the fire. It would rather put up with a weak government that subordinates itself to the military than tempt fate or worse by destabilising the government or ousting it. Of course, if massive disturbances break out as a result of the agitations being planned by Khan, Qadri and Co. then all bets are off. If things come to such a pass, then Imran Khan will have to cool his heels in the pavilion, his dreams and delusions of leading Pakistan shattered.

The most remarkable thing in the unfolding political drama in Pakistan is the swiftness with which Nawaz Sharif has lost political capital and managed to box himself into a corner because of wrong political decisions. He could still recover lost ground, but that will require political cunning, coolness and compromise, none of the things he is known for.

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