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October 16, 2016

The parliamentarian that never was


October 16, 2016

Behind Imran Khan’s project of the closure of Islamabad on October 30 lies a parliamentary career that has been wrecked by a series of extra-parliamentary forays into politics.

Imran is in pursuit of power. But so are others from the PPP, PML-N and others parties. Imran is criticised for abandoning his party’s ideological core – the coterie of reformers and visionaries – in favour of the rich and electoral heavyweights, ie for moving from manifesto politics to money politics. But the PPP’s political history betrays a similar process. Other ‘ideological’ parties, including the ANP, are susceptible to the same charge.

A change in party focus on political issues is also not new. The MQM struggled to move from its exclusive mohajir constituency to an all-Sindh platform, though unsuccessfully. Yesterday’s coalition partners the JUI-F and the JI are today’s adversaries as opponent and partner of the PTI-led government in Peshawar, respectively. Political parties changed their positions on various issues but still maintained the coherence of their message and commitment. In Imran Khan’s case, change in the issue for mass mobilisation is a rapid transition from one set of foci to another.

One of the most vociferous issues for the PTI was opposition to the pursuit of counterterrorist measures against the TTP. Imran was so overwhelmingly committed to the Taliban that the media termed him Taliban Khan. He even demanded that the Taliban should be allowed to open an office in Pakistan where the government could conduct dialogue with that group. The Taliban in turn nominated him as their representative for communication with the state, an offer that Imran felt obliged to decline. His vehement opposition to army action against the Taliban continued till the day the Operation Zarb-e-Azb started. He abandoned the Taliban cause after that.

The other side of the same coin, anti-Americanism, was a persistent pursuit for the PTI leader. He maintained that the real villain was Washington not the Taliban. He demanded that the US should withdraw from the region forthwith. He adopted the strategy of stopping the passing of Nato supplies through Pakistan and picketed the entry points into Afghanistan. He opposed the American drone attacks against terrorist targets in Pakistan. At some stage, the policy and profile of anti-American politics disappeared.

In the 2013 elections, the Taliban attacked the PPP, ANP and MQM offices and thus adversely affected their campaign. But the PTI was one of those parties that were ‘allowed’ to campaign for elections. After the PML-N’s victory, the PTI leadership passed through, first, acceptance, then irritation and then frustration over its defeat, as did party workers and cadres including expatriates who had dashed to Pakistan to bring about ‘revolution’. That led to a re-launch of the movement.

Not only was the position of leader of the house gone, the leader of the opposition was gone as well. If Imran had been a parliamentarian, he would have struggled from the floor of the house, participated in the process of legislation and policy formulation and waited for the next elections. That is what other MNAs and party leaders had done for decades. Given Imran Khan’s third position in the hierarchy of leadership in the National Assembly, with no chance of moving to second not to talk of first position in the short run, he opted out of parliament and led a tirade against parliament as a fake institution, the caretaker government as fraudulent, the Election Commission as a party to the rigging plan and Chief Justice Chaudhry as a facilitator of electoral rigging.

Not being a politician has a price tag. If you do not make parliamentary politics a career and instead adopt a strategy of ‘jump start’, then you miss the bus. Exit from parliament through mass resignations and opting for a sit-in for more than 100 days while denigrating the election process as rigged led Imran down a blind alley. He settled for the undoing of parliament.

Instead of spending hours, days and months in showing a firm belief in parliament, he betrayed the trust of his voters. Parliament has functioned in the West as a method of disengagement of people from the street and bringing their representatives to parliament. This ‘stabilising’ role of parliament as a conflict resolution mechanism or conflict dissipation strategy has kept the system going in scores of countries.

Imran Khan claimed that his grievances had not been met in parliament. This, despite the fact that he attended only 11 sessions of the National Assembly in one year and hardly contributed to any productive discussion about issue formation or law-making. Of course Nawaz Sharif also played truant. But he had the cabinet, the PM office and other trappings of power.

Imran had none. He should have taken parliament more seriously, instead of summarily dismissing it as a forum for dialogue. He turned the whole parliamentary community against himself. By not accepting the PTI’s resignations, and thus allowing its MNAs back, the government avoided what could be a fierce re-election campaign.

The judicial inquiry into election rigging was a political defeat for the PTI. It rendered the rigging issue redundant. But the inexorable desire to keep afloat and never disappear from pubic mind made the PTI leader move to the issue of corruption. The Panama leaks were a godsend. Many believed that Nawaz Sharif would not be able to survive the scandal. But an inordinate delay in building a response has done the trick. Imran Khan has struggled to mobilise the public but the public is not moved. His meetings are mere shadows of his earlier gatherings not only by numbers but also by passion. One would strike only when it is hot.

One wonders if Imran Khan is reading the signals. Punjab, which is relatively more stable than other provinces, does not seem to be ready for political change much to the chagrin of the PTI, PPP, and other political groups. That has led to the use of un-parliamentary language. The flow of profanities – some call it obscenities – from the PTI stage has vitiated the narrative.

Imran has put the ECP, NAB, FIA, FBR, indeed the whole gamut of the state, in the dock much like Tahirul Qadri and the Taliban before him. His net contribution to politics can be summarised as: personalisation of politics; demonisation of political opponents; plebeianisation of the discourse whereby sophistication is considered unnecessary for political leadership; and self-inflicted isolation as well as insulation of his party from the wider political class.

The PTI’s informal alliance with other opposition parties fell through on the agenda of surrounding Nawaz Sharif’s residence in Raiwind. The PTI allies found it disgusting and a violation of minimum political ethics. Imran Khan’s shift of place in the same area did not help. As a parliamentarian that never was, Imran Khan chose to boycott the joint session of parliament held on the issue of Kashmir. His senior colleagues seem to be resigned to his lack of parliamentary zeal and assertive profile.

A movement that started with great promise seems to have fallen on the back foot. The PTI’s attempt to short-circuit the political process cuts across the parliamentary system. There is a dire need for a re-think.

The writer is a professor at LUMS.

Email: [email protected]

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