Friday July 12, 2024

Partying like it’s 1999

By Mosharraf Zaidi
March 08, 2022

The breathless supporters of Prime Minister Imran Khan are easily duped by his exceptional oratory skills and his sincere expression of normal, everyday sentiments. Corruption is bad. Of course, it is. Slavery is bad. Of course, it is. Pakistan is a proud, sovereign, independent country. Of course, it is – and it has been for most of its 75-year history – no matter what partisan, self-conscious take various political actors may have.

How can anyone NOT want what PM Khan says he wants for Pakistan? Clean governance. Independent foreign policy. Strong, muscular positions. Surely, anyone that is against PM Khan is pro-corruption, pro-slavery and invested in subjugating Pakistan to a complex international conspiracy to keep Pakistan down. Surely!

It is all so stupid; it is hard to believe it can be true. Yet here we are. Three and a half years since he became prime minister, a quarter century since he entered politics, PM Khan is still relentlessly campaigning on the magic of anti-corruption at home, and strong, muscular Pakistani sovereignty abroad. Do his impassioned speeches have any meaning? Or are they all part of his masterful command of the public discourse – manipulating, crafting, shifting, adapting and adopting as he goes – always with a view to take and keep pole position in the Battle Royale that is Pakistani politics?

The corruption dynamic is telling but isn’t necessarily a wholly fair parallel. Breaking up the multiple cartels that work like clockwork to sustain corrupt practices in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors is hard work. It is easier to just talk about it. PM Khan and his close inner circle were ill prepared to govern in August 2018, when he took oath of office. They were even less prepared to deliver on the PTI’s principal promise: a corruption free Pakistan. First, they said it would take a hundred days. Then they said it would take six months. Then they started dodging and dancing around the question: the bureaucracy is impenetrable, the bureaucracy was put in place by the Sharifs, fixing governance takes time. Blah, blah, blah.

The latest addition to the panoply of excuses for the PTI’s broken principle promise is that there is an international conspiracy afoot: it wants to keep Pakistan corrupt, by taking down Imran Khan – that’s what the no-confidence move is all about. How this is all related to the Russia-Ukraine conflict is anyone’s guess, but the PTI’s record is enviable. Someone somewhere is likely to attribute the entire conflict to an effort to weaken PM Khan. Such is the power and the appeal of a public discourse in which the most potent fuel is the approval of people that are sick of complexity and hence baying for the blood of the villains responsible for the kind of complexity that makes their lives hard. This isn’t a Pakistan-specific problem, and Imran Khan isn’t the first politician to attain a mastery of the sentiments of his helpless, angry and desperate supporters.

The anti-corruption narrative has grown in appeal in the last three decades, because Pakistan’s economy has not – not at the rate that inequality has. It has grown in appeal in the cities because hard-working young Pakistanis know that hard work and talent alone does not guarantee anything to them, not even the safety and security that is an inalienable right – much less a truly, really, properly good life.

For decades before the technology revolution, whose telos has been the domination of social media in the public discourse, the only way educated young Pakistanis would know about how different the rest of the world was, would be through their distant expat cousins. But in the last decade and a half, the disparities between what passes for normal in Pakistan, and what is actual normal in the rest of the world have become so much more real that PM Khan’s anti-corruption narrative makes more and more and more sense every day. He doesn’t need to end corruption, or even dent it a little bit, to come across as being consistent and righteous on the issue of corruption – he just needs to stay true to it. In short, as seemingly empty as the PTI rhetoric on anti-corruption is, it has real, organic and I would argue, growing appeal.

The PTI’s governance failures, strangely, may actually feed into the narrative, reinforcing the idea that no matter what young middle-class people do, life continues to be a series of economic struggles. And then they see pictures of how the Sharifs and Zardaris live – and of course, Imran Khan’s many failures may sting, but at least he doesn’t seem to be rubbing their faces in the ‘corruption’ that is the root of their lot in life. It doesn’t matter that the idea that corruption is at the heart of inequality in Pakistan is a deeply controversial and unproven assertion. It matters only that Imran Khan says it is, and people believe it. Now, let’s take the foreign policy version of this dynamic.

Pakistan has absolutely been treated with derision and dual standards as far as how its key Western allies talk to it and talk about it. Often, those Pakistanis that complain about this have an ahistorical view of how the West learnt the tone that it takes with Pakistan. But it’s important to know the architecture of the West’s approach to Pakistan.

The post September 11, 2001 era didn’t come from nowhere. It was part of a continuum of severely injurious events on the international stage that featured Pakistan. On October 15, 1999 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1267, in which the roots of the Taliban’s post 9/11 ouster took root. By 2008, UNSC Resolution 1267 became the instrument that would be used to internationally sanction armed resistance to Indian occupation in Kashmir. The Lashker-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad were always terrorist groups to most, but UNSC 1267 removed all doubt, and the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai cemented their toxicity.

Of course, all this was connected to the other important thing that happened in 1999 – the Kargil War. That failed Kashmir-centric intervention proved catastrophic for many things, from civil-military trust to institutional accountability of the military, to the concept of leave-no-man-behind, to, perhaps most importantly, the age-old strategic link chain between Washington DC, Islamabad, Langley, Virginia and Aabpara. Kargil permanently altered how US strategists saw Pakistan. The Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, and the Mumbai attacks of 2008 only confirmed the bias that Kargil helped lay the ground for. K Subramanyam’s revenge for Kargil has thus been enacted, day by day, slowly, like a Russian poison pill.

Pakistan’s strategic vulnerability in 1999 was anchored in the domestic political mess of the Nawaz Sharif versus Jahangir Karamat contest (and later the Sharif versus Musharraf contest). The West came, saw and chose to behave in the way Pakistan set the table for.

Fast forward to March 2022. PM Khan is railing against the West. So much of the substance of what he cites rings true for Pakistanis tired of having Western discourse rub their faces in it. Ordinary Pakistanis are not invested in the Haqqani Network any more than they are in the LeT – yet, for two decades, these non-state actors have shaped state to state relations.

Where Pakistan’s exports go, who sends home the most remittances, where the venture capital investments come from and how critical Western private equity will be for Pakistani commerce and trade in the next two decades all pale in comparison to the national shame that has rained down on Pakistanis that follow the news, watched the country get blown up like swiss cheese from 2007 to 2015 and now, finally, have a national leader that doesn’t care for diplomatic niceties as he fights for his political life – and for their sense of dignity. Like the anti-corruption narrative, the appeal of what PM Khan says about the US drone war is strong, no matter how empty and vacuous it may be.

The big question isn’t really whether the Western ambassadors’ feelings have been hurt or not. The big question is: at what point does this version of the Nawaz Sharif versus Jahangir Karamat pantomime reach a critical mass – and what kind of strategic vulnerabilities such a poop-hitting-the-fan moment may unleash for Pakistan?

The writer is an analyst and commentator.