Any attempt to transform Pakistan or bring a ‘change’ in this country must begin with the struggle against the military’s dominance in Pakistan’s political economy. Khan sahib’s PTI does not offer any programme against these challenges
If nothing else, Imran Khan has taken the media circus by storm! Since his famous jalsa (rally) in Lahore’s Minto Park, everybody seems to be taken with his politics of ‘change’. There is no doubt that after a long time in this country the youth is politically charged. They may not be able to articulate their support for Khan sahib’s politics very well but they do seem to see him as a leader who can meet their aspirations. Before I go further on whether Khan sahib can be an agent of much needed change in Pakistan, two points need further analysis. First, Imran Khan’s exclusive focus on the youth to form his support base, and second, why does the youth in this country support him.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI’s) main support from within the youth mostly comes from 18-34 year-old age group. This age group makes up roughly one-third of Pakistan’s population. If we assume the total population to be 180 million, then this age group stands at about 60 million people — all potential voters. In the previous national elections (2008), the total registered voters numbered a little over 80 million and, with a 44 percent turnout, almost 35 million polled their votes. The 18-34 age bracket of potential voters is therefore extremely important for any party in the next general elections. This group again is not evenly spread throughout Pakistan. It is mostly concentrated in Punjab and parts of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Punjab has the lion’s share in the total seats in the National Assembly, with over 50 percent contested from this province alone. It, therefore, makes sense why Punjab figures so much in the politics of political parties with national aspirations. The answer to the second question is also linked to the first. This 18-34 year-old group has come of age in the past 15 years, particularly in the last decade. The youth in Pakistan, especially from the middle and upper classes (mostly concentrated in central and North Punjab, Karachi, and parts of KP) faces a severe crisis of identity. This demographic group has grown under the larger rubric of Islamic nationalism that Pakistan’s military establishment has enforced upon us through the state’s education system, the media and establishment’s supporters in various Islamic and jihadi parties. This nationalist identity that centred strongly on religion has come under attack in the last decade in the context of the ‘war on terror’. The youth wants to keep its broad religious identity intact but does not want to come across as extremists. It wants to have friendly ties with India but does not want to lose the establishment’s narrative on Kashmir. It wants to stay rooted in tradition yet look ‘modern’. Imran Khan’s personality seems to offer a prolific compromise between all these contradictory trends/tensions. In some ways, his personality epitomises the personal aspirations of the urban middle class youth. Hence, the nearly fanatic support for Khan sahib and his politics.
But the youth is not the only section from where Khan sahib’s support comes from. There are strong rumours of overt and covert support coming from our military establishment — a rumour that gets credence when one sees old and new establishment horses either joining PTI’s ranks or currently in talks with them. This raises serious questions about Khan sahib being an agent of change. One is forced to question whether tried horses whose politics has always been of reinforcing the establishment’s grip on Pakistan’s internal affairs can help change this equation. I think not. We have to understand why the establishment is preparing a new candidate/party to enter national politics and what it plans to achieve by it. Two reasons come to mind. First, old allies like the PML-N have chosen to go their separate way and intend to weaken the establishment’s power in national politics. Whether this actually happens remains to be seen but the threat of a conflict looms large over the horizons if the N-League comes to power in the next general elections. The current government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is firmly ensconced in the establishment’s lap but remains an untrustworthy ally, especially because of its support in Sindh. The PPP, when under threat, uses the Sindh card quite liberally and effectively. Second, in the post-2008 election scenario a genuine coalition of anti-establishment political forces was built and, with the ANP, PML-N, and PPP joining hands, a hung parliament was converted into a parliament of two-thirds majority. This opportunity to challenge the establishment in any meaningful way was squandered largely by the PPP. The establishment, by supporting Imran Khan, wants to ensure that such a situation does not arise again. If the national vote is split four ways (between the PPP, PML-N, MQM and PTI mostly) in the next general elections, then neither of the two big parties will be able to form a government without Khan sahib’s PTI. And as it seems right now, a PTI dominated by old establishment’s horses will have little power to bring any meaningful ‘change’ in the country. In some ways we are back to square one; this has the politics of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) writ large over it.
People are prone to seeing PTI’s politics as radical or revolutionary. In reality, Khan sahib does not represent any break from the politics and class structure prevalent in Pakistan. His politics is limited to challenging the corruption of individual politicians but falls short of posing any threat to the permanent political establishment of the country. The Pakistani army is Pakistan’s foremost problem. Pakistan’s history shows that the army’s alliance with imperialism has wreaked havoc with Pakistan’s polity in the past and continues to do so even today. The rise of religious fundamentalism and extremism in the country must also be seen in the same context. Pakistan’s military has deliberately cultivated religious extremism with the aid of imperialism to pursue its own narrow objectives in the country and the region. After a 10 year long war on terror, religious extremism and its permanent patron, the Pakistan Army, have now come to represent the foremost challenge to the well being of the people of this country. Therefore, any attempt to transform Pakistan or bring a ‘change’ in this country must begin with the struggle against the military’s dominance in Pakistan’s political economy. Khan sahib’s PTI, much like any other mainstream political party, does not offer any programme against these challenges. It does not see the military as a main obstacle in Pakistan’s path towards a more just and equitable society. It sees the military as the victim of local and international political designs rather than as the perpetrator of what is mostly wrong with Pakistan. PTI seeks to protect the military and its privileges but wants to hold politicians accountable for all their acts. There should not be any doubt in anyone’s mind that politicians, both in the government and the opposition, must be made accountable for their actions. This process of accountability, however, must be extended to our ‘beloved’ military generals as well. Khan sahib’s PTI is woefully quiet on this issue.
There is another important issue where Khan sahib’s politics is found wanting. Perhaps the most important struggle against the military’s hegemony in Pakistan is being waged right now in Balochistan. The Baloch have long struggled against the state for their rights that are routinely usurped. Like all other mainstream political parties, Khan sahib also wants to make the Baloch feel part of Pakistan again — he just does not tell us how he might do it. The support for the Baloch struggle is of paramount importance since it is a struggle against the status quo and for a more just and equitable Pakistan. Any political party that wants to struggle against the status quo must firmly ally itself with the Baloch. PTI’s statements on this issue are no different from what is usually churned out by the establishment (and some mainstream parties). It wants the Baloch to become our ‘brothers’ again on terms that are set by the Pakistani military establishment. PTI fails to understand that this is precisely what the Baloch want to resist and oppose.
No matter how radical the rhetoric, in reality PTI’s politics is conservative and traditional and, I believe, until it addresses the issues above, it will remain an agent of status quo rather than of change.