What is different about the current illegal and unconstitutional crackdown on a single political party? Because crackdowns have happened before. Parties have been ‘dismantled’ before.Some partisans think they haven’t melted down at the speed of white lightning in the way the PTI has – but there was no Twitter or Facebook or TikTok in 1999, and no satellite television or childhood obesity in 1977 so we really don’t know how fast this particular dismantling really is.
It feels faster because it’s happening now – and to many, it is happening to people they don’t like. That may be one difference: usually, democracy and democrats tend to be on the same side. This time, it feels like some democrats may have been less critical of the implements of dismantling that they have spoken out very bravely against for decades.
I think it is important to call out false equivalences and to challenge deliberately (or genuine) skewed analyses about what is happening. Some friends have tried to frame the current scenario as a failure of Pakistan’s human rights activists and ‘liberals’. Those same friends have struggled to explain or understand Jibran Nasir’s abduction. Jibran is home safely. But Imran Riaz Khan is not.
It feels odd to lump those two names together – except that both have CNICs and both are sons and husbands and both have the right to hold views that many people agree with and many people find odious. And both therefore have some basic rights. And neither’s whereabouts should be a mystery. One thing that is different is that even when people on the opposite sides were victimized by the same implements of dismantling it didn’t feel as odd and as hard to treat them the same.
This is exactly why I have been so uncomfortable with false equivalences. Jibran is a moral voice – consistent, sometimes to a fault. Unceasing and ceaselessly brave. Imran Riaz Khan does not have those qualities. But Jibran was gone for one day. Imran has now been missing for weeks. Which is the false equivalence? And why?
There are nine women associated with the PTI that are in custody that clearly seem to be in very serious trouble with respect to the deliberate attempt to split the Pakistani national security atom and cause fissions that this country cannot conceive of, cannot afford, and must never be tolerated. Yet some may ask how a political party came to be so powerful as to win over the otherwise disconnected super privileged elites of Lahore so thoroughly that they sought to attack the Corps Commander’s residence in Lahore and provoke unfathomable divisions and weakness in the country’s most important institution.
How did the PTI Nine become so potent? Who is responsible for seeding, sustaining, growing, nurturing and expanding Imran Khan’s ability to dominate the public discourse to the extent that he had by May 9? Pakistanis were ready to tear down Pakistan because Kaptaan had been arrested. This feels different too.
Insafians argue that the difference is that Khan is more popular than any leader has ever been in Pakistani history. This is hyperbole that is typical of a populist wave, but it could also be true. In 1999 the coup was explicit and it was, as a poet might say, a rose that one could call a rose. How would the democrats of the PML-N and PPP want whatever is happening right now to be remembered? This certainly smells like a rose. And it sheds petals like a rose. And it has pointy sharp thorns like a rose. But no one is calling it a rose.
One clear difference is demographic. Pakistan’s population in 1977 was less than 80 million. In 1999, the population was less than 155 million. In 2023, the population is around 250 million. Even in the interim from 2018 to now, there are roughly 16 million new voters that crossed the threshold of adulthood sometime after July 2018. If you turned 18 in the last five years, you probably have higher expectations of what your life will be than the same cohort in 1999. But what you don’t have is a memory of the 1999 coup, or of Benazir the fighter, or even of the Lawyer’s Movement that began in 2007 and lasted till March 16, 2009. The ones that remember these things are understandably protective of the legacy of those important events and moments and movements. “No, no, now is nothing like then”. This is true.But this much is also true: then was nothing like now. We struggle to understand and frame what is happening when the constitution has lost all meaning because we have watched it lose all meaning in real time, in slow motion. The 90-days stipulation was violated with reckless abandon and it just ‘happened’. Those that protested thought they could get what they seek – a reinstatement of Imran Khan as a true national leader with no one capable of challenging him – by sowing division in the most important institution in the country.
Perhaps the most potent change or difference between all that this country has endured previously and what is in store for Pakistan in the coming months is the concurrence of its polycrisis: economic, political, constitutional, security and climate.So what is the way out of this? I have argued for a ‘grand national dialogue’ in these pages since December 2020 and have sought to convince those around Pakistan’s leaders of the impending doom that will descend upon the people of this country absent a new set of rules of the game that are necessitated by the collapse of the order that was shaped by the Charter of Democracy in 2006 and the success of the Lawyer’s Movement in 2009.
The answer that no one, including the PML-N, wants to hear is the only answer that is realistically conceivable right now. It is Nawaz Sharif. But this answer is not to the question: who should be prime minister? That is not the key question and certainly can only be answered through a free and fair election.The answer Nawaz Sharif is to the question, “who will shepherd this weakened and broken polity through the valley of darkness that it finds itself in today?
”Of all the politicians, the one with the most obvious and sustained track record of caring for the long-term health of the republic, the one with the capacity to forgive and forget, the one with the stature to be able to bring politicians together, and the one with the experience to be able to do so is Nawaz Sharif.
The military, the judiciary and wider civil society have all been devastated by the constant wear and tear of the battlefield that Pakistani governance has been converted into. There is so much partisanship and visceral hatred in the mainstream that repairing the discourse will take years – but this process cannot begin without Pakistani elders sitting together, like elders always have in our culture, to sort out irreconcilable differences and save this village from eating itself.Nawaz Sharif – as the dominant political force behind the government today – is the only one that can begin a process of healing. But doing so will require an incredible amount of courage, magnanimity and the capacity to resist the poisonous sycophants and the instinct of revenge that tend to overwhelm most Pakistani leaders.
This process of reconciliation should not be designed to save the PTI, nor to save any political leader. It should be designed to save the standing of parliament and the viability of the constitutional order. In doing so, it necessarily requires there to be a ceasefire between government and the PTI – and by extension, a cessation of the military’s crackdown on the PTI. The process must create a clear path to a free and fair election. Most of all, the process must establish mechanisms for resolution to disputes.
A free and fair election will likely deliver more seats to the PTI than anyone in government would want but less seats for the PTI than what Imran Khan and his supporters would like. A successful Pakistani reconciliation, led by Nawaz Sharif as the most impactful ‘elder’ of the country, would deliver a mechanism that will prevent such an electoral outcome from dismantling the wider compact within which Pakistani leaders and institutions work together.
The polycrisis is here to stay. Only a coherent and cogent Pakistani republic can protect the people of Pakistan from its effects. Such a republic cannot be led by the military. It needs to be led by elected civilian leaders. Everything good for Pakistan’s future begins with this simple truth.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.
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