Thursday June 20, 2024

The other side of politics

By Hussain H Zaidi
June 10, 2023

For a politician who was brought up in the lap of the powers that be and who rode to power on their coattails, it must be excruciatingly agonizing to see himself at the receiving end and his party fall apart.But that’s what politics is. For all the power and glory that it confers on the beneficiaries, it has a flip side as well. The downside is always there but, basking in the pleasure of the moment, the beneficiaries remain oblivious of it until the rug is pulled from under their feet.Having reached the pinnacle in cricket and made a good name for himself in philanthropy, Imran Khan embarked on his political career in 1996. For the following decade and a half, he remained in the wilderness. In the course of the struggle to carve out a niche for himself in politics, he backed military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf. Later, he was instrumental in the passage of the 17th Amendment to the constitution, which put the seal of parliament on the changes introduced by the regime to the political system.

As a quid-pro-quo for the support, Khan’s 2002 election to the National Assembly was 'facilitated'. However, his expectations that he would be rewarded big by the regime were dashed. He remained a parliamentarian, and nothing more – until, in desperation, he called it quits from the Assembly.But just when he was being written off, Khan sprang up a big surprise by staging a mammoth public meeting in Lahore – the city where political fortunes are made and lost – in October 2011. The rally gave the proverbial fresh lease to his hitherto disappointing political life and made him a force to reckon with. Be that as it may, there was no dearth of people who would smell a rat in the sudden and steep rise in his fortune, putting it down to the same old ‘invisible hand,’ which has the reputation of making and breaking political parties, alliances and governments. By 2008, the PML-Q, the king’s party that came into being after the fall of Nawaz Sharif in 1999, had been reduced to a rump and there was a search for a new face that could be anointed.

At any rate, from that point onward, politicians started joining the PTI in droves. Most of the new high-profile entrants into the party were from the PPP – itself a sinking Titanic in those years – and some of them held ministerial slots in its government (2008-2013) or otherwise occupied senior positions in the party's pecking order. Those ladies and gentlemen who would day in and day out play up to Asif Zardari and the Bhutto family for their political sagacity and sacrifices for democracy started making similar flattering remarks about their new leader. It hardly occurred to the party leadership at that time that these politicians of questionable credentials would waste no time in abandoning the PTI’s ship on the first signs of sinking. Maybe it never occurred to the leadership that their ship could ever sink, because they had seen only the upside of politics.

It is alleged that Khan was goaded into marching on Islamabad in 2014 over the allegedly rigged 2013 national elections. But Khan was no Mussolini, whose threat to march on the capital could be so powerful as to bring the government down in Italy. Thereafter, despite announcing and executing various plans to oust the government – a four-month sit-in at Islamabad’s otherwise most heavily guarded square; starting a civil disobedience movement; staging big public meetings in big cities; and threatening to bring the shutters down on the entire country – Khan’s campaign did not bear fruit. However, the movement did considerably weaken the civilian setup, which many believe was the hidden purpose of the dharnas.

Luck completely smiled on Khan in 2018 when his party won the disputed national elections. The pot of gold, which he had coveted so desperately, was finally in his hands. Not only that, but as prime minister too he found not a single card stacked against him. All the institutions were on one page; the accountability of the ‘corrupt’ – the leitmotif of the Khan’s politics – was at full swing, and the opposition, though considerable in size, was fending for survival with its top and second-tier leadership being in and out of prison. A largely chastised mainstream media and a fully managed social media was singing paeans to the hybrid arrangement.

The only fly in the ointment was the economy, which continued going downhill. But the economy seldom pulls governments down in Pakistan. So why worry? Anyway, in the absence of veritable tensions between the key stakeholders and with no opposition worth the name, the polity seemed to have reached the ‘end of history,’ when everyone who matters thinks they will live happily forever.It’s a time when mortals begin to regard themselves as immortal, pygmies fancy themselves to be giants, and the ephemeral is taken for the abiding. From that perspective, politics is seen as the most fascinating and scintillating of all games, which you can play without the fear of losing, or a bed of roses in which one can comfortably lie and give free rein to one’s imagination.

Youth, power, and glory bring in their train a sense of invincibility until time shakes the mortals off. For all its seemingly foolproof tectonic, the post-2018 hybrid arrangement was jolted and finally crumbled under its own weight. Yet all was not lost for the self-styled man of destiny. He continued to rant and rave with abandon both offline and online the way no one else had ever the temerity or the permission to do; the party remained intact, winning by-polls one after the other and receiving favourable judgments from the courts on the trot. All those factors combined to create the impression that his second coming was round the corner.Come May 9. The sense of invincibility went berserk, ending up pillaging and ransacking state symbols in different parts of the country. However, it was in Lahore – yes, the city in which the PTI took off in 2011 – where the redline was crossed in the most bizarre of fashions. The May 9 violence marked the beginning of the unraveling of the PTI. The subsequent days saw several senior office bearers quit the party one after another, most of them having spent a brief time behind bars and thus having their baptism of fire in politics. Knowing only one way of doing politics, these deserters by and large have joined a new party, which is poised to draw upon the PTI’s political capital.

For the top PTI leadership, it has been a novel experience. Hitherto they were used to taking scalps – to use a familiar phrase from cricket – of other political parties but now they found themselves on a sticky wicket facing a hostile spell. The dark side of politics has finally revealed itself to them. As former prime minister Zafarullah Jamali remarked after his unceremonious exit, “Those who bring you to power can also drive you out.”In our part of the world, politicians are privileged to have nine lives. They may be sacked from power, disqualified, jailed or exiled but always make a comeback. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were dismissed twice and forced into exile – but both returned. But for her assassination, Bhutto would have become prime minister for the third time – a feat that Sharif went on to accomplish in 2013. Sharif, currently in exile and disqualified, may even better his record.

Will Khan too see a return to power after a few years? Politics is like a game of cards in which a card discarded now may become the match winner after some time. But he may never be able to win back the complete trust of the movers and shakers.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: