Saturday January 29, 2022

Prime Minister Teflon Khan?

November 23, 2021

One of the coolest one-liners in any Hollywood film is from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. A companion assures Jack Nicholson’s The Joker of how he looks: “…you look fine,” she says. Nicholson, deadpan: “I didn’t ask”.

At last week’s “parliamentary” joint session of the upper and lower houses, Prime Minister Imran Khan may have been nervous. To be truly nervous he would have needed to take the exercise seriously enough to believe that the sanctity of the democratic process matters. As a slew of bills were passed in parliament, I imagined how PM Khan may have processed the entire scene. For now at least, ‘parliament’ thinks he’s fine. There’s just this one thing: Imran Khan ‘didn’t ask’.

Perhaps this confidence is its own virtue, and perhaps this virtue is a liability for a country that could really use good, conventional leadership right now. PM Khan has been anything but conventional. The breathless post Notification Gate commentary has been, for lack of a better word, embarrassing. Humpty Dumpty was broken and could never be put together again. And then, just like that: thud. Maybe conventional would have folded by now. This one hasn’t yet.

The tapes and the leaks seem to be feeding on a different supply chain than the PTI’s parliamentary lifeline. At the 3rd Annual Asma Jahangir Conference – a remarkable and impressive legacy event that has generated exactly what it is supposed to – the fiery speeches and rhetoric was hopeful and, for many Pakistani democrats, quite exciting. But it also seemed un-enough. The current regime, built on the civilian-military-intelligence triumvirate has already graduated sans collapse. A new DG ISI, at long last, has taken command at Aabpara. Not only did the sky not fall – but none of the audio leaks of the last few weeks, none of the speculation, and none of the anticipation delivered any obvious changes.

The disintegration of the way conventional democrats think things should be is a worldwide, global phenomenon. In the Arizona state legislature, House Bill 2720 was introduced seeking to enable the state’s elected representatives to cancel the presidential election for that state. Why? Because, of course, Trumpism! But we are dismissive of this kind of populism at great peril to democracy and democratic values. The Imran Khan supporter isn’t sickened by the fact that he somehow won the election in 2018, nor is she or he upset that the Great Khan has literally zero interest in the majesty of the parliamentary system and how it functions, and the value of debate and discussion on policy, in parliament. The Imran Khan supporter would happily watch the entire edifice: parliament, federalism, the republic itself, all of it, burn to the ground, if it meant that the honest and dedicated Imran Khan could just be allowed to deliver on all his promises without all these troublesome obstacles.

This is no slight to the Imran Khan supporter, or to Imran Khan: the slights seem to have had little to no impact on his ability to maintain office, or to retain support among his core constituents. And the slights, plus Notification Gate, which was supposed to unleash the gates of Armageddon, have had no discernible impact on the passage of thirty-three bills – yes, that’s right, nearly three dozen new or amended laws.

It must be said of course: there may not be, nay, there certainly are not, as many PTI supporters as PTI supporters would like us to think there are. But it must also be said: there sure are a heck of a lot more PTI supporters than the PTI’s enemies would have us believe. The enterprise that is the Imran Khan political machine has demonstrated remarkable resilience in overcoming a long list of challenges. Let’s enumerate some of them, for effect, and to jog the memory a little bit.

Three distinct waves of TLP protests. A massive overhaul of the system in Afghanistan. A self inflicted standoff with the US that was entirely avoidable. At least two crises in the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relationship (at least one of which was entirely avoidable). A mini conflict with India in February and March of 2019. Three changes of finance minister, including one devastating Senate embarrassment, and the totally unnecessary demotion of Shaukat Tarin. COAS Extension Gate. FATF Legislation Gate. Maulana’s Islamabad Jalsa. Covid-19. And at least a dozen other serious to semi-serious crises.

The One Page has been helpful, of this there is no doubt. But is this one-window solution to answering serious questions about the longevity, resilience and power of the Imran Khan regime really a robust enough explanation? PTI critics have a lot of raw material to work with, but this raw material cannot be expanded to the realm of fiction to erase, negate or ignore the parliamentary plurality sized elephant in Islamabad: Imran Khan seems to be made of Teflon.

Teflon is the brand name for a chemical treatment whose core chemistry is captured by its name: polytetrafluoroethylene. Once you coat something with Teflon, you supposedly make it water-proof and non-stick. Khan has kept his head above water, and not drowned in the Biblical flood of incompetence that he seems to personally cultivate around him. He has survived multiple waves of the very scandals that made his political brand appealing – missing persons, wheat price scandals, sugar price scandals, scandal scandals. He has flipped and flip-flopped on virtually everything he promised his own supporters. And Notification Gate was supposedly the final station on this line: the last straw.

So what happened? There is a distinction between tactical support for Imran Khan within key decision-makers in the security corridors, versus unmitigated and gushing personal support of individual Pakistanis that work for the security establishment, versus a whole-of-institution slant away from other options, and in the direction of the Imran Khan option. These distinctions are lost only on those that confuse the individual with the institutional. Support for the Imran Khan regime is and has been one of these. The one that matters. The one that matters less comes and goes.

System-wide stability is highly valued – at home and abroad. The fact that the One Page held up as long as it did may be a product of the country surviving a series of damaging but non-catastrophic crises, or the survival itself may be a function of the One Page. But there is a symbiosis here. If Imran Khan needs a certain kind of support to stay in office, the support he banks on must also draw strength from somewhere. PM Khan seems to know this. Better than he lets on.

So what happens next? Well, for this we must go back to Hollywood, and revisit the the story of the Zenmaster and the little boy, as told by a CIA Afghanistan hand, Gust Avrakotos, as played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, at the end of Charlie Wilson’s War.

A 14-year-old boy gets a pony for his birthday. The villagers say, “Wow. That's amazing”. The Zenmaster says, “We'll see”. A couple of years later, the boy falls off the pony whilst riding. The villagers say, “Wow, guess that was terrible, that pony”. The Zenmaster says, “We'll see”.

A couple years later, there is a war. All the young men are drafted into service. That boy, now a young, draft eligible man, because of his injury from the fall off the pony, is excused from service. The villagers say, “Wow, wonderful!” The Zenmaster says?

The writer is an analyst and commentator.