Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The opposition’s 11-party alliance the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) reflects a familiar pattern in Pakistan’s history. A military dictator or authoritarian civilian ruler eventually runs out of his bag of tricks to befool the masses, is incrementally exposed in the naked light of day but continues on the path of self-destruction through aggressive pillorying of the opposition. Sooner or later, despite differences, these opposition parties are forced thereby to paper over their differences and make common cause against the ruling incumbent/s.
Something on these lines has again occurred after two years of the disastrous Imran Khan government. The military establishment’s latest favourite was always a dubious choice. Before and after he formed his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) party in 1996, it was obvious to those who knew him well that despite the Jamaat-i-Islami’s (JI’s) and former ISI chief Hamid Gul’s mentoring, Imran Khan did not have a clue about politics. Despite a vague adherence to Islam, for which he attracted the label ‘Taliban Khan’, Imran Khan was nevertheless without any vision or programme for changing state and society in any conceivable direction. That and the solitary seat gifted to him by military dictator General Pervez Musharraf in the 2002 general elections probably persuaded the latter that Imran Khan’s ambition (and expectation) that he would be anointed prime minister was a non-starter. That offended Imran Khan’s ego to such an extent that he turned against Musharraf. Similarly, in the past he had turned against once friend and benefactor Nawaz Sharif (who gifted him the land for Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital in Lahore, which arguably became the first stepping stone to Imran’s entry into politics).
From 2002 to 2014, Imran Khan seemed to be floundering to discover a narrative that could propel him to power. The 2013 general elections saw his PTI, with help from rich funders like Jahangir Tareen and an expatriate support base (the latter remains an unresolved to date PTI foreign funding case before the Election Commission of Pakistan; so much for ‘honesty’), jumped into the electoral fray in a major way. PTI’s defeat at the hands of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was foreseeable despite Tareen and others herding some of the ever-malleable sections of the political class known as ‘electables’ (essentially big landowners) into the fold of the PTI, given the PML-N’s firm grip on the majority province of Punjab. Now the game became more sinister.
Imran Khan first challenged the results on four National Assembly seats, a fight he eventually lost but which helped him forge the narrative of dishonesty and corruption against the PML-N and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leadership. By the time the PTI’s long march and sit-in in Islamabad transpired in 2014, behind the scenes the ubiquitous military establishment had decided to play Imran Khan against Nawaz Sharif, the chief architect and mentor for this purpose being former ISI chief Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha. Then Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif had run foul of the military establishment because of his outreach to India’s PM Narendra Modi. However, just before Imran Khan’s long march reached Islamabad, Pasha and he met in Tarnol (just outside Islamabad), where Pasha advised Imran to abandon his plan for a sit-in. When Imran refused, Pasha said: “Well sir, in that case, good luck!”. The implication was that the PTI’s pressure had helped the military establishment to ‘tame’ Nawaz and so they considered further action unnecessary. That is why, during the prolonged sit-in in Islamabad, Imran Khan kept hoping for the ‘third umpire’ to raise his finger (the cricketing analogy means then Chief of Army Staff – COAS – General Raheel Sharif, was expected to turf out Nawaz and install Imran in power), but that never happened.
The windfall for Imran came through the Panama Papers leaks in 2016 that exposed Nawaz Sharif’s underhand international financial practices. Imran petitioned the Supreme Court (SC), which found Nawaz guilty of not being honest and possessing integrity, although they dismissed him from the premiership on a relatively insignificant technicality of holding an undeclared UAE work visa (iqama). The SC found it expedient to make a mountain out of this molehill and not only dismissed him but advocated a criminal cases follow-up on the basis of money laundering and corruption, a case log that continues to this day, Nawaz Sharif’s medical ‘exile’ in London notwithstanding.
That dismissal opened the floodgates to Imran’s corruption narrative and arguably helped propel him to power with the backing of the military establishment through the rigged 2018 general elections. The reason why Imran Khan and the PTI have remained stuck on this narrative is because they do not have any strategic plan for the country, starting with its economy. It needs to be said that corruption is not confined to a few leaders of the opposition, a narrative that translates through the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) into a political witch-hunt, but is embedded in the system as a whole, from top to bottom. It will require much more than a politically partisan witch-hunt of the opposition leaders to cleanse this rotten system. It needs nothing less than a revolution.
To return to the PDM. Having forged unity amongst themselves and embarked on a series of rallies against the PTI government, what exactly does the PDM represent? What is it missing? The PDM is the alliance of almost the entire political class with the exception of the incumbent PTI that has lost the patronage of the military establishment and seeks the ouster of their current favourite Imran Khan to replace him and ‘render service’. What it lacks is a programme for or in the interests of the people.
The Left’s weakness today renders the debate about whether it should participate in the PDM’s campaign a largely academic one. The Left can at best bring grist to the mill of the PDM without necessarily gaining much from it politically. The cost-benefit ratio of such participation appears unattractive. Instead, the Left should attempt to close ranks, offer the alternative, socialist programme for the masses, and organise around it. For various historical reasons (which we shall return to at some point), the Left has yet to find an effective voice and impact the ongoing political, economic and social scene. A tall but necessary mountain to climb.