Thursday June 20, 2024

The hand that feeds

By Salaar Khan
April 17, 2022

Pakistan has had its fair share of men with a saviour complex. And it has been seen, always, as a damsel that needs rescuing from above: by those to whom ordinary rules need not apply.

Here’s Ayub, telling us that “parliamentary democracy does not suit the genius of the people of Pakistan.” Here’s Zia, telling us through his Cheshire-grin that his conscience is “200 percent clear”, while also reminding us that he gets to decide what is best for the people because “I’m a martial law administrator; you are forgetting.” And on the constitution, memorably, he had this to say: “What is the constitution? It is a booklet with ten or twelve pages. I can tear them up and say that from tomorrow, we shall live under a different system. Is there anybody to stop me?”

The constitution, of course, is much longer than “ten or twelve pages’’, but General Zia is hardly much of an authority on the topic. But now here’s General Musharraf cutting it down further still: “I think a constitution is just a piece of paper to be thrown in the dustbin.”

And now, here’s Imran Khan. Having advised the president to dissolve the National Assembly after the speaker’s unlawful ‘dismissal’ of a vote of no-confidence, and having attempted to obstruct the Supreme Court’s directions right down to the last minute, he now plaintively asks what he ever did that was so unlawful.

The PTI has long considered itself to be an outsider to politics. Even as it has packed its ranks with insiders, it has continued to believe in its own purity of purpose and higher calling. And with that has come the sense of exceptionalism. That the only path to Tabdeeli is through a two-third supermajority with no room for dissent. That, otherwise, ordinances can cut past the rest of parliament. That it is preferable to effectively hand such numbers over to the new government than honour the peoples’ mandate as members of the opposition.

If the PTI’s last few weeks made one thing clear, it’s that Imran Khan is more interested in Constitution Avenue than he is in the constitution.

The constitution matters only when it matters. And followers have followed suit. At times, they turn back to the constitution, relying on half-baked, hand-me-down interpretations of parliamentary privilege under Article 69 and loyalty to the state under Article 5(1). At others, they decide the constitution does not matter at all: declaring it to be a means for the elite to remain the elite.

Upon Imran Khan’s election as prime minister, in a heartfelt congratulatory message, Jemima added that, “The challenge now is to remember why he entered politics in the [first] place.” It’s hard to argue that he spent his time in office with anything close to perfect-recall. But now, out of office and back on the containers where he is most comfortable, it seems to be coming back to Imran Khan and his resolute followers.

Not too long ago, the stock response to journalist abductions was ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’. Not too long ago, PECA’s teeth were being sharpened against political dissent. Not too long ago, speech critical of the government led to charges of sedition. Not too long ago, Baloch Students were beaten up and left in the rain in the federal capital for demanding the release of Hafeez Baloch.

Today, Imran Khan’s supporters call the military high command by name as they hold up placards in defiance of one-way Vigo rides. As Twitter trends run into uncharted territory, PTI supporters conduct headcounts. In Hyde Park, Her Majesty’s voluntary subjects assure Pakistanis that they will be free one day. Huddled around a barbecue grill somewhere in the United States of Suburbia, a group of revolutionaries burn expired Pakistani passports to protest a (now, practically, debunked) ‘conspiracy’ by the other country whose passports they hold. Today, even the reference against Justice Isa was a misguided ‘mistake’.

Journalists being silenced is, once again, condemnable. Arbitrary additions to no-fly lists are again reprehensible. Political raids on homes are, again, unconscionable.

It’s good to have Imran Khan back. But as with everyone else, he won’t be here long. Because all of these things are as bad today as they were yesterday, and as they will be tomorrow – regardless of who is in government. But that would be a position driven by principle, not power.

These recent revelations, rather transparently, have less to do with the rediscovery of principle and more to do with the rude realization that so many have had after taking a bite of the Hand that feeds.

Not too long ago, Imran Khan praised the military for non-interference in politics. A month ago, asking for interference, he declared ‘neutrality’ to be a trait of animals. But even as the PTI calls out intervention in politics, they don’t call out the act of interference; they call out a specific interferer.

This is no heroic stand against intervention; it is an outburst against the denial of an intervention of the PTI’s choosing. The former prime minister’s complaint, now, is only that he wasn’t thrown a lifejacket. Imran Khan, at the end of the day, is a believer in saviours who are above the law.

Even as the PTI has decided to leave with a bang, as opposed to fizzling out with a whimper, the reverberations won’t shake the real columns of power. Not too long ago, it was the PML-N that had the same name on their tongues. Not too long ago, it was they who complained about censorship of speech. But when it came to legislation that demanded the same page, it bore unanimous approval as it sailed through parliament.

Politicians will fight and bicker amongst one another. They will lay a minefield one year, and walk all over it the next. And they will rinse and repeat.

Consider Article 62(1)(f) – the constitutional litmus test for sadaaqat and amaanat. First introduced by Zia, parliament has had ample time to amend the provision. As late as the 18th Amendment, parliament considered its removal from the constitution. But, of course, the move was opposed by the PML-N. Seven years after the 18th Amendment, the PML-N became the first political party to have a PM removed under Article 62(1)(f). A year later, the Supreme Court declared that the disqualification would be for life.

Or take the law of sedition – that rotten relic of the British crown that we decided to keep and wield against one another. In 2014, Imran Khan found himself on the receiving end of sedition charges. In 2020, Imran Khan was prime minister, as the ICT administration charged peaceful protesters of the AWP with sedition. The same year, police filed sedition charges against Nawaz Sharif. And now, in 2022, the Sharifs are back, and suggesting that Imran Khan be charged with sedition.

Commenting, before the turn of the new century, on the effect of propaganda on the US elections, Chomsky wrote: “The public is not to see where power lies, how it shapes policy, and for what ends. Rather, people are to hate and fear one another.”

It’s safe to say that, as things stand, hate is in abundance. Even as they converge upon common grievances, there are no bridges on the horizon. And this suits the Hand that feeds just fine.

In Netflix’s Narcos, Pablo Escobar says, “The men of always aren’t interested in the children of never.” That is just as true in Pakistan as it was in Medellin: the children will come and go, but the men of always will remain.

The writer is a lawyer. He tweets @brainmasalaar and can be reached at: