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April 12, 2019

Why the PTI must not fail


April 12, 2019

Pakistan is in the midst of a unique experiment. Unbeknown we have marched into an era where our political journey as a society has evolved to the point of a deliberate induction of a new political option in the form of the PTI.

For those who relate to such an event as another handmaiden of the proverbial ‘establishment’, it may not appeal as a thought but there are foundational differences in this third force than the many others that have emerged and drowned in the moment as soon as their purpose was served.

Other than some political denominations which Pakistan inherited from a united Punjab or a united Bengal, most of which saw their demise in the first ten years of the nation’s independence, what emerged later as a pattern is what survives as common memory. The Conventional Muslim League served Ayub Khan when he sought political relevance after his coup. The Council Muslim League which retained the original flavour of a party of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, served on valiantly under different heads till it too was subsumed by the march of time.

Ziaul Haq used the Muslim League platform under Mohammad Khan Junejo to give his tenure a political cover. It later sub-divided into an ‘N’ and a ‘J’ faction. ‘N’ under Nawaz Sharif has survived as the leading Muslim League faction for the last three decades. There are smaller factions like the PML-Q, called the ‘Kings’ Party’ which was created to support Musharraf’s coup but holds out only nominally around the political acumen of the Chaudhrys of Gujrat. As soon as an opportunity presents, they will leverage it for greater gain under a bigger dispensation. The PML-F faction in Sindh branched off under Zia and has to date kept an independent profile but more specifically restricted its politics to Sindh. Opposition to the PPP’s monopolist hold there will keep them alive for some time.

The PML-N, since 1993 – previously the IJI in 1988 and 1990 – and the PPP are now the more permanent faces of Pakistani politics. The latter has been through the fewest mutations, if at all. It has retained its centrality as a political entity though the flavour of the party has drastically changed for the worse under the much maligned Asif Zardari. Nawaz Sharif at the head of the PML-N has been around in politics since 1976, mostly with the many iterations of the Muslim League till he found his own faction but also briefly with Asghar Khan’s Tehreek e Istiqlal. The smaller regional parties augment the political scene but are never in a position to make a government in the centre.

Each of these entities has had a supporting relationship with the ‘establishment’ whose good offices they were suffused with in their days of infancy. Some may include the PPP in this arrangement but that isn’t true. ZAB founded the PPP to fight off the hold of the ‘establishment’ even as he sensed the moment when politics was delivering from the long military hold under Ayub and Yahya back to civilian control. His relationship with Yahya does come under scrutiny but that was more opportunism than playing footsie with him.

The emergence of the PTI over the last two decades is thus a unique political story. From the boondocks to the helm, this party has been helped to realize its once improbable ambition to power. The credit though lies not at the door of the proverbial ‘establishment’ but at the steps of the two major parties, the PML-N and the PPP, for their inept governance and massive allegations of graft opening the door to a previously inconsequential PTI. It became the default third option. To a suffering, but more informed people (courtesy the 24/7 news media and pervasive digital platforms), the electorate yearned for a change at the right time for the PTI to see a reversal of its fortunes.

For the ‘establishment’ too it was a welcome development. It had been stung by the open animosity of the two mainstream parties, frequently enunciated through statements of the two leaderships. The military felt slighted, sensing a deliberate effort by the two mainstream parties to soil its image both inside and outside the country. In doing so, the two parties also sought diversion from their own predicaments from increasing allegations of corruption.

The PPP’s current spat with the federal government is in similar vein to carve for itself some safe space amid continuing allegations of massive misappropriations over its time in power. Ditto for the PML-N as it stands embroiled in disturbing revelations of inappropriate conduct in office, especially in Punjab. Nawaz Sharif’s ongoing plight is already well known.

To ward off the pressure, the PPP has resorted to raising bogeys of a federal-provincial stand-off with allegations of unprovided funds, tussle over control of hospitals reverted to the centre by the order of the Supreme Court, the bogey of annulment of the 18th Amendment despite its impossibility, and the perennial threat of dismantling the federation threatening a 1971 redux, a la the Sindh card. For a nation still hurting by the 1971 break-up, it is unfortunate to hear a major party resort to such low tactics of leveraging national unity for finding relief over its wrongdoings. While it may additionally hope to garner support around parochial sensitivities to inverse the threat on the federal government, it in no way inspires confidence in the PPP’s ability to forge unity among a divided house.

The PML-N has held its base well despite the adversity of so many legal challenges. Over time, it will recover in a new avatar under a new leadership. The intervening years between the last and the next elections are enough for it to recover its integrity. But in the company of the PPP – with nine lives – it may subsist in its old model of governance by exploiting power for familial and tribal gain over the needs of the people and the state. Such is the mutually sustaining malfeasance that riddles the promise of the two parties. The only trigger for the two to modify their conduct in governance remains the threat of a third option.

The PTI’s own credentials are under heavy suspicion, given their first few months in power which have shown gross inadequacy in critical areas of governance. It shall have to get its act together to inspire confidence in its ability as a reliable and resilient third political force. This will decide the future of governance in Pakistan.

It is thus that there is this calling for the PTI to improve their worth in office. Their failure to perform, or their internal disunity which threatens their integrity, will fail the experiment and throw Pakistan back into the fold of the 1980s and 90s at the hands of the two traditional big players. Only a more vibrant and competent PTI in the mix will force the two to modify their governance in line with the needs of the time, greatly more transparent with a far higher integrity. Left to themselves, the two will have a free ride.

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