Change and the X factor

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

Imran Khan, if not compulsively destructive, is emblematic of change that is vested in rejection – a valid enough one of the misgovernment and self-enrichment of a power elite installed and sustained by preceding democratic electoral mandates. But rejection is only part of that process of change: the other part is replacement. Inevitably the electorate queries: Since you have removed the mafia dons and taken charge, what are you doing and what you have brought in? Also, what (if any) kind of ‘garbage’ disposal system does a getting-to-be-old new administration have in mind if what it rendered political ‘waste’ is not bio-degradable electorally?

For, in a wonderfully dramatic irony, it may turn out that the Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital founder-turned-party-leader’s treatment of rival parties’ leaders is so strongly toxic a chemotherapy as restores their political health. It has already eased the way for the emergence of loyal reformatory leadership.  Both the PML-N and the PPP, viciously and incessantly denigrated by PTI zealots, have a well-seasoned substantial federal party organization. And the diehard popular support the PML-N and PPP’s vilified leadership so evidently retains, is not offended or alienated when other old-faithful party leaders take the driver’s seat to keep the party vehicle going in a situation where the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris are incapacitated by disqualification, imprisonment and ill-health. Nor can second-tier party-men feel they have been let down while Mr Sharif or Mr Zardari get away and ‘escape’ leaving them to face the adversary. Even an NRO and all its implications would not obliterate the PPP and the PML-N challenge to the PTI when its own post-mandate performance is fatuous at best. With or without participant Bhuttos; Zardaris; coupled or decoupled Sharifs; the parties have a grassroots vote-bank. It may swell seasonally but has not withered satisfactorily in the face of prolonged drought or died a wished-for death. That vote-bank is unlikely to opt for the PTI alternative electorally.

Is Imran Khan able to absorb the lesson that the only effective way to deal with democratic challenges is through democratic practice in all its diversities and pluralities and himself turn over a new leaf, or will he remain stuck on the same page? If he was supported by those who nurture or mint merely emblematically democratic parties because they feel better with a military hand on the civil navigation, will they be looking for a new figurehead at the prow? Even a completely different type of vessel? The PTI phenomenon is proving more cultist than democratic. What kind of say or control over their governance do citizens have if freedom of expression and association are limited and political choices are cordoned off?

Already the public’s sense of non-participation is heightened. Presidential ordinance rules the day and the elected parliament is insulted and ignored by the treasury even more than by the stonewalled opposition. As far as the people are concerned there is no clarity as to what the powers-that-be want and intend. Contradictions and inconsistencies abound. Take an example: Razzak Dawood – a cabinet-cozy unelected official advisor with an industrial profile on par with Imran’s cricketing one – initially badmouths CPEC initiatives and then goes on to hail them. Asad Umar — elected, prominent party-man, with a multinational corporate backdrop part of his redoubtable CV — does not pull off the same feat vis-à-vis the IMF. What is the dominant approved strand in trade, commerce, investment? Mere citizens (dual citizens and expats may understand better as well as signify more) concede they themselves lack the expertise to understand esoteric economic matters and hope for results that do not further raise the cost of living locally.

The PM expends much energy visiting assorted foreign capitals; and the COAS too is a frequent flyer. When one visits Saudia the other follows up with a visit to Iran. If one chats up Trump’s America the other chats up China. Two sides of the same coin maybe — but which currency? While this shows we have many friends, we are also heavily indebted to them, literally and figuratively. As it happens these several friends are on different pages or keep other books: So what will we do if push comes to shove among them, and creditors politely remind Pakistan’s government there is no such thing as a free lunch?     

It is meaningless to be reassured the authorities are on the same page when the book itself is kept closed and citizens are denied definitive policy statement. Not only is there a lack of direction there is some apprehension of being kept in the dark while an unknown factor pulls a fast one. The PTI manifesto is not manifest. That at any rate is a democratic change