The sombre nights of Islamabad these days may herald yet another era of political pessimism, deals and intrigues. The dull capital could soon be animated by the political hullaballoo of the simmering anger of a demoralized opposition making its presence felt. At present, the silence in the capital feels ominous. The scars of the previous adventurism have not fully faded from the face of our struggling democracy. Are we in for further political turmoil?
Last time it was D-Chowk in the federal capital where the PTI and PAT made it hard for the government to function. The prolonged political agitation which shaped itself into the longest sit-in in the history of Pakistan lost its lustre as it grew older without being able to oust the then sitting prime minister. What it created was a new political narrative of bashing the ruling party and a ‘non-parliamentary’ rhetoric of popular politics.
The PTI could not mobilize people to revolt against the government but it could broaden its popular support with lofty promises of change. Young aspirants of political change stood by the PTI as they saw some light at the end of the tunnel with the crumbling of dynastic politics in Pakistan. That did not happen though as the PTI chose the easier path of grabbing power rather than reforming the political system.
The genesis of so-called unparliamentary language produced a whole new lexicon of political slang in Pakistan which partly shaped the mantra of Naya Pakistan. Then there emerged a new generation of political hawks who could use this language with ease and without any qualms of being seen as uncivilized. Though parliament in Pakistan has not had any Victorian ethics or exalted civility before the rise of the PTI, there were certain restraints and self-imposed inhibitions during political debates in favour of public morality. The term ‘unparliamentary language’ perhaps means the use of abusive, derogatory, vulgar and violent language as a political norm to defame opponents by a group of self-righteous moralists. In politics, this happens only if parliament is not considered a place to draw public legitimacy from through meaningful debate on national issues.
Quite a few saw it as a political onslaught not only to denigrate the ruling party and its allies but also the mainstream political forces of the country. The new political formation led by the PTI was more of an ad-hoc arrangement to overthrow the ruling government and to redefine the power equation between state institutions. Some political analysts believe that the resistance from the PML-N and its political allies against this onslaught was democratic in essence. However, the defiance was not purely for the sake of salvaging democracy; it was also about determining who holds real power.
The PML-N and the PPP could not forge an alliance to defy what they claimed was political victimization of civilian governments. This was political expediency as they did not lose hope in striking an amicable deal. The ambiguity and lack of conviction on the part of the PML-N and the PPP helped the PTI gain centre stage as a political alternative. Popular support for the PML-N and the PPP started to erode because of their expedient political behaviour and ambiguity in asserting their clear position at a time when they said democracy was under attack.
Now the recent pronouncement of post-Ramazan political movements by the PML-N, PPP and other opposition parties does not look very promising because there is ambiguity and confusion about the political objective and intent. It would not be enough to highlight the failures of the PTI to convince people to rise against the government without offering a realistic alternate political roadmap of systemic reforms. The coalition of opposition parties will strive to make the most of the mounting public anger against the broken promises and disillusionment caused by the PTI government. But it seems that the opposition will stop short of mobilizing people for any transformative or revolutionary action.
Politics has been portrayed like some dirty game in Pakistan – in particular when it is done by those who have the audacity to cause disruption in the political order of things. Force and fear are then resorted to – to prevent that from happening. Politics in reality is the noblest of deeds by an informed citizenry to make the state accountable to its people. Those who stand for the democratic rights of citizens in Pakistan will need an alternate political platform rather than relying on the dynastic politics of traditional political parties.
The forthcoming political agitation by the traditional opposition parties will be for their political positioning rather than a struggle for democracy in the country. The agitation will be directed against a political regime for the acquittal of the incarcerated leaders of the opposition parties. Furthermore, the PTI-led coalition government does not have much in its tether to confine the political beast from devouring it completely. Who knows the outcome of impending political wrangling amongst a divided ruling class? The situation may go out of control – quite contrary to the political strategy of the PML-N and PPP to use popular anger as a bargaining chip with the incumbent government.
The political alliance of opposition parties is a hotchpotch of varying interests, with each party vying for more share within the existing system rather than transforming the current structural and institutional malaise of Pakistani politics. The leading opposition party – the Pakistan Muslim League-N – is suffering from internal strife between a rigid Nawaz camp and docile Shahbaz camp with increasing tension over redefining the party position. The Nawaz camp reportedly is in favour of going for an all-out offensive against the ruling party while the Shahbaz camp looks inclined to strike a deal to help quash political cases against party leadership. The Nawaz camp has strong presence but they lack a long-term political roadmap beyond ousting the current government.
The Shahbaz camp has a very pragmatic and opportunistic political intent to devise an amicable solution of power-sharing and bargaining for mutually beneficial coexistence within the traditional power structure. The PPP leadership wants to build a political atmosphere to bargain for an acquittal of political cases of corruption against its leadership.
Despite all their political idealism and transformative zeal, Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz will have very little say in steering the direction of the forthcoming wave of political protests. But this is the time for Bilawal and Maryam to prove their leadership credentials. This is their opportunity to disprove our apprehensions that they will not let go of the bounties of dynastic politics.
People have started to feel betrayed by the promises and commitments made to them by the current state of affairs. You cannot stand the ground for long with false promises – and it is time to deliver or lose the battle. For the PML-N and PPP, it is all over without a workable roadmap of drastic political reforms beyond the obvious rhetoric of restoring true democracy in the country.
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.