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November 5, 2016

Welcome to politics in the age of Imran


November 5, 2016

It must be difficult being an Imran Khan supporter when he decides to go on the warpath. For months he – and by extension everyone associated with him, be they members of the PTI or fans of the Kaptaan – work themselves into a state of agitation about how the whole country is conspiring against them. Everyone from the Election Commission of Pakistan to the Supreme Court to the media is deemed to be in the pocket of the PML-N. If you don’t support Imran then you are a patwari or a Gullu Butt.

There is a predictability to how things play out after that. Imran walks to the edge, peers at it, jumps in and forces everyone else to take a dip too. Then he realises that he cannot sink any lower and has to slink away. But it is not part of Imran’s temperament to admit defeat. He must go out in a blaze of glory. He declares he has got exactly what he wanted and leaves it to his die-hard supports to explain his supposed victory.

On the eve of his Islamabad shutdown, Imran gave his pose of triumph and claimed that having the Supreme Court form a commission to investigate the Panama leaks was all he wanted. His decision to call off the protest had nothing to do with the PML-N, for once, deciding not to lay low and taking the fight to the PTI. It had nothing to do with the Islamabad High Court restricting the protest to one area and ruling that shutting down a city and using violent rhetoric in doing so did not constitute legitimate protest.

It is not just Imran Khan who had difficulty being consistent. When the Panama Papers first leaked, the Supreme Court declined to form a commission or play a role in the framing of the terms of reference for a commission, saying the law on commissions was unclear about its authority to do so. It recommended new legislation be passed before it could take up the case.

New legislation was not formed but the court did take up the case. Whatever its legal justification for doing so, at least the court spared the country the ordeal of the dharna of 2014 when such unfortunate blights on the national existence as dramatic histrionics, violence and Tahirul Qadri become a regular part of our lives.

If any good come from Imran’s latest exercise in protest politics, it is that we got to see the true, ugly character of many in the PTI. Nobody soiled their reputation quite as badly as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak. He was meant to be the experienced one, the adult in the room who knew politics and would keep the unruly newcomers at bay. He may be all those things but he also showed himself to be an unvarnished racist.

His stereotyping of Pakhtuns as being prone to violence was unfortunate even though the implicit threat that he and his party would turn violent should they not get their way was beyond the pale. But the chief minister didn’t stop there. He then said that the PTI is a Pakhtun party, making obvious the inference that the PML-N only represents Punjabis. This, once again, is typical of the PTI. In a hunger to gain power, they are willing to burn the whole house down. The last thing Pakistan needs is for a person in a position of authority to play up ethnic divisions. The only reason the impact of what Khattak said was minimal is because he is more a laughable figure than a sinister one.

Once again, the chief minister didn’t stop there. He then compared the police action being taken against the party to that of Hindus in Kashmir. Khattak seemed to have taken up a dare that he could become more offensive in his racism every day and this is where he won the bet. He simultaneously managed to slander all Hindus by associating them with the actions of the Indian state and compared himself and his party to a genuine liberation movement where those fighting it have a genuine fear of being killed, raped or tortured. The only thing the PTI has to worry about is whether the DJ at their rally has the Go Nawaz Go song loaded on his iPod.  

To be fair to the PTI, this time the government descended rather low as well. Shahbaz Sharif competed in the racism game when he declared that neither Narendra Modi nor any Jew but an even greater evil was coming to shut down Islamabad. Using Modi as the embodiment of evil is fine because he actually is that bad but the casual anti-Semitism showed how deep hatred runs in us.         

Equally worrying was the PML-N taking an all too restrictive view of the right to protest. Yes, Imran Khan is an annoyance and he makes life difficult for the residents of every city he decides to occupy. He frequently walks to the edge of endorsing violence. But none of this should be illegal and it does not justify the government pre-emptively deciding to shut the protest down.

There was no moral cause for the government to surround Imran’s Bani Gala residence, to block the route of those coming from Khyber Pakhunkhwa with containers and to use tear gas on the protesters when they tried to remove the containers. And when Imran Khan complained that the police were not even allowing food to reach his residence, there was certainly no need for Mushahidullah Khan to say food was being allowed but illicit substances weren’t. Going for low blows is no less ugly when the PML-N does it. The PML-N’s strategy may have been politically and tactically astute but it was a moral disgrace.

Here’s something to make us all cry over our cornflakes as we read the newspaper in the morning. We may have to go through all of this again. Imran is pretending to be delighted by the Supreme Court intervention right now but that joy will curdle into bitter anger if he doesn’t get what he wants.

Imran is only about ends and goes along with the means only if they carry him to that end. Should the Supreme Court or any commission that comes into existence decide there is no proof of Nawaz’s corruption, they too will be denounced as patwaris and then we will be back to where we were. Imran will keep the container mafia humming along and the rest of us feel like we have a nagging feeling of déjà vu. Welcome to politics in the age of Imran!

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.

Email: [email protected]

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