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May 6, 2019

What is the PTI’s ideology?

Opinion

May 6, 2019

On the twenty-third foundation day of the PTI, Imran Khan repeated his political rags-to-riches story once again. It was an appropriate occasion for him to elaborate his achievements. After Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, he is the third political leader in Pakistan’s history who has founded a nation-wide political party that enjoys mass appeal and has been able to win an election. (Allow me to exclude Sheikh Mujeeb here for geographical reasons.)

Once again, Imran Khan explained that nations are all about the personality and integrity of the man at the top. Once again, he gave the example of Mahathir Mohamed and how he single-handedly turned his country into a model of development. However, Imran Khan compared his own struggle to the struggle of the most holy personage in Islam. For my own well-being I dare not say more, and trust the PM’s piety without question.

Political parties are often seen as an extension of their leaders’ personality. It is tempting to portray politics as a gladiatorial match between political leaders. There is a hero inside us that craves for the physical manifestation of the superhuman and we often identify it among sportsmen, pop-stars and political leaders. It also true to an extent as all political parties in Pakistan are dominated by their leaders who hold absolute power in the absence of democratic structures within their parties.

Political parties, however, aggregate the interests of some social groups at the cost of some other groups. The leadership of a party may represent many of these interest and may try to influence policy directly. At times, these interests push their interests from the outside, through their clout or nuisance value. These interests put a huge restriction on the man at the top and may even force him to make choices that go against his own beliefs.

The PTI claims that it is an ideological party. However, it has never given us a coherent description of its ideology. Ideology has dozens of definitions, both positive and negative. Let’s pick one to analyse the ideology of Pakistan’s ruling party. According to Terry Eagleton, a British cultural theorist, “ideology is the medium in which conscious social actors make sense of their world…it is action-oriented set of beliefs.” In simpler words, ideology means how a political or social group understands and interprets the world around it and plans action to bring change in light of its agenda and ambitions.

Imran Khan has long claimed ideological affinity with the Jamaat-e-Islami, and more recently with the MQM. During his recent visit to Iran, at a joint press conference with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, he stated, “we support Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the new Pakistan is looking for such a revolution.”

Despite all the U-turns, we can see some consistency in Imran Khan’s thought process ie the PTI’s ideology. Twenty-three years ago, Imran Khan started the PTI as a middle-class movement against elite politicians. That’s what made it somewhat similar to the JI and MQM. As some people close to Imran Khan had stated at that time, the PTI was to be a middle-class movement like the MQM based on class struggle, rather than a sectarian or ethnic agenda. Imran Khan saw corrupt politicians as the major reason behind Pakistan’s decline.

Imran Khan’s 'ideology' at this stage was not very different from the ideology of Pakistan’s military dictators. Both Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq had seen the political elite as the main reason for the rot in the country. They had also claimed that a pious, non-elite strongman was the ultimate solution to the nation’s problems.

Ziaul Haq had in fact taken concrete steps to push back the traditional political elite in a way that changed Pakistan’s political landscape forever. He helped middle-class politicians – thrown up mainly by the local government system – turn rich, and facilitated the entry of crony capitalists into the political arena. His political engineering created the sugar lobby that still dominates all major political parties and Pakistan’s politics. This process also involved a large number of traditional politicians turning from agriculture to crony capitalism, a process that changed their interests as well. Nawaz Sharif, the politician, was the main product of this process.

Imran Khan, though, equally disliked the new breed of politicians and hated Nawaz Sharif more than Benazir Bhutto. He foresaw the emergence of a new breed of clean middle-class politicians. Most of his companions, at that stage, belonged to the professional urban middle class and his favourite example of new leadership were two leading lawyers from Lahore – Hamid Khan and Dr Parvez Hassan.

During the last seven years, the PTI’s composition has changed and, with it, its ideology has also undergone some revision in a subtle way. Both traditional politician and crony capitalists started joining the PTI in large numbers since 2011. The crony capitalists made huge investments in the party while traditional politicians aka electables were necessary to ensure numbers. The PTI, as a result, arrived at a new definition of the corrupt political elite. Now only those politicians are considered corrupt elite who have not joined the PTI, or the political opposition in the present context.

How these shrewd classes have secured their interests is clear from the policy choices made by the PTI after forming the government. The sugar lobby and the textile sector has received huge subsidies. The powerful real-estate sector, another investor in the revolution, has been able to remove restrictions on non-filers from buying property. Similar facility has been extended to the automobile sector as well. As a top-up, representatives of special interests now directly control many ministries of their interest directly in a blatant violation of the conflict of interest that Imran Khan used to speak against.

The second revision to the PTI’s ideology is the emphasis on the rights of the poor. An Islamic welfare state on the model of the state of Madina is the new ideological ideal of the PTI. Interestingly, accordingly to Pakistani school textbooks, the country is already an Islamic welfare state. Perhaps, this term was picked by Pakistani politicians from the British at the time of independence without bothering to dig deeper into the meaning of a welfare state. Welfare state has been a rhetorical device, rather than a coherent ideology guiding policies, in Pakistan followed by almost all leaders, political and military.

Welfare states, modern or ancient, work on the principle of equality and they follow the same route of redistribution. They tax the rich and distribute resources to poor. Early Islamic states generated resources through taxes (Zakat and Jizia) and conquest. All welfare states have a very high level of taxes. Under the PTI, the shortfall in tax collection has widened to a record Rs345 billion in the first ten months of this fiscal year.

According to the World Bank, Pakistan’s revenue blackhole, which three years ago was Rs3.3 trillion, has further widened to Rs5 trillion. Pakistan merely generates Rs4 trillion in taxes while it has the potential to generate annually Rs10 trillion in revenues. The biggest revenue gap exists in two sectors, both of which remain untouchable due to their political clout and nuisance value – the mid-level businesspersons, particularly the traders, and the service-sector middle class. Forcing these sectors to pay their taxes is more difficult than going after mullahs in Pakistan. In order to set up a welfare state, the only option left for Imran Khan is go on a conquest. Conquering an oil rich country can be his best bet.

The one constant plank of the PTI’s ideology is Imran Khan himself – the ultimate strong man, the honest leader who will change the course of our history just by being at the top. His reaching to the top is the tabdeeli, and how he got there is the story that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will repeat till the end of time.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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