The problem those few short years ago was that the PPP had taken itself out of the running.
It’s not quite riddle-mystery-enigma level, but it’s worth revisiting. Specially now that the fling seems to be over.
Why did the boys want the PTI to topple the PML-N? The other way round — why did the PTI need the boys’ help? — is not very interesting. All ambitious sorts, seeking to vault to the top, need a bit of help. And when it comes to the very top, there’s only one institution that can massage results across the board.
The Imran Khan question, though, is interesting. He’s always been a maverick. And that makes him dangerous. Plus, he waded into politics when he didn’t need to and he didn’t stand a chance for years. And when his brand of politics finally did catch fire, it’s because a surging demographic bolted to his camp, not because they were herded there. All of that to say, Mr Khan is an unreliable partner. If it took ZAB a while and President Nawaz Sharif a decade to grow too big for their boots, Mr Khan was already there.
This business of trashing the second to last chief and opposing the last one’s Saudi sinecure, it’s vintage Imran — loud, brash and unpredictable. Assuming the boys wanted him as PM, what the hell were they thinking a few short years ago? Helpfully, Mr Zardari has chipped in with a reminder of the first part of the why-Imran argument: as a block to total power for Mr Sharif.
In alluding to the PPP’s role as kingmaker in the next election, Mr Zardari has harkened back to pre-2013 election politics. The era of Zardari had proved that coalitions work well for the boys’ needs. A governing party with partners is a governing party that is beholden, on edge and at risk. It keeps the governing party distracted, having to pander to allies’ needs, and it introduces a fundamental element of uncertainty. Not bound by law to support a government, coalition allies can bring down a government if the incentives and maths are right.
The problem those few short years ago was that the PPP had taken itself out of the running. Because, insurmountably, it’s the PPP and because Mr Zardari had engineered the collapse of the PPP.
Mr Khan, though, was ascendant. The twin governments of the PPP at the Centre and the N-League in Punjab had produced the twin spectres of corruption and dynastic politics. Exactly the stuff that Mr Khan had built his political career railing against. If Mr Khan didn’t exist, he would have had to be invented. And no invention could have dreamt of coming close to capturing the urban, middle-class zeitgeist as Mr Khan was already doing. The boys had their man. But why did they need a guy — their guy — to begin with? The Zardari era had already produced a template for cleaving apart national security and foreign policy from the drudgery of running the economy and balancing the books.
Even if Mr Sharif returned to power, by himself or astride a wobbly coalition, it’s not like he’d have been able to enact a sweeping agenda. The last four years have pretty much demonstrated that. But Mr Sharif was not Mr Zardari and there begin the reasons for the boys needing a guy, their guy.
The glib ones are well-known enough to attract derision. Like BB, Mr Sharif was a threat because he knew the system and wanted to change the system. But unlike BB, Mr Sharif may have had both the will and a path to changing the system. Essentially Mr Sharif was: male, Punjabi, from inside the system, burned by the system, beloved by his people and with the kernel of an idea that could destroy the system. The idea: opening up to India would set in motion a chain of events that may bring the cherished idea of civilian supremacy to fruition. If it sounds high-minded, it’s not: an opening to India would benefit Punjab first and the most; and civilian supremacy could ensure a generational transfer of power among the Sharifs. Again, that’s reached almost folklore status, a myth to be sneered at or cheered on depending on your politics. But there’s another side to it. To effect his agenda, Mr Sharif would be unleashing a redefinition of the very idea of Pakistani nationalism. That is the red line. The boys aren’t implacably and forever opposed to an opening to India in some form or shape. And they aren’t in principle opposed to sharing power with the civilians. But an opening to India must not and cannot tamper with the idea of Pakistan, of what it means to be Pakistan and Pakistani. And power sharing must be on rational terms; civilians focusing on and improving the civilian side of the State and progressively acquiring the experience to take on bigger issues.
For all those things, Mr Khan was perfect. He had no burning ambition. His version of nationalism chimed with the boys’. And his domestic agenda couldn’t have been scripted better had it been written by the boys: Politicians bad; the people great; hard work and honesty would make Pakistan rise; and everyone should stick to their job and know their place.
The bet on Mr Khan didn’t pay off. He couldn’t deliver and, for now, seems unwilling to follow orders or seek direction. But the dream that caused the bet on Mr Khan as PM surely lives on. And for all of us whose name isn’t Imran, that should be the worry.
By arrangement with the Dawn