Thursday June 01, 2023

Phantoms in PTI’s mirror

August 14, 2022

Take this as the measure of the present state of politics in Pakistan that a person of the dubious credentials of Shahbaz Gill has become its flaming point of reference.

But the stage for what Shahbaz Gill’s brash interlude sparked off was already set. There is this resplendent backdrop of the Election Commission of Pakistan’s verdict on the PTI’s foreign funding case. Also providing a deep perspective is the Toshakhana reference filed against Imran Khan by the ruling alliance. It raises the spectre of the former prime minister’s disqualification.

And there is surely a lot of movement behind the scenes. The Federal Investigation (FIA) team investigating the reprehensible social media campaign on the tragic helicopter crash in Balochistan has been converted into a joint investigation (JIT) team. Incidentally, we have some intimations of what a dreaded JIT team can pull off.

At another level, just look at the timing of this still evolving Shahbaz Gill episode. It so happens that this column is appearing on the landmark seventy-fifth anniversary of Pakistan’s independence. It is hard to get around a rather ritualistic analysis of what we have made of our freedom. On Thursday, we observed National Minorities Day in remembrance of what the Quaid had said on August 11, 1947.

But I feel that a focus on what Shahbaz Gill said in an interview with ARY News on Monday and what transpired in its consequence is well justified. The main issue that is raised is the abiding involvement of the establishment with national politics. In that sense, it has a bearing on the journey we have made during the past seventy-five years.

For the moment, however, the spotlight is on the journey that Imran Khan has made and on the path that lies ahead for him. The signature tune adopted by Imran Khan and prominent PTI leaders after Shahbaz Gill’s arrest on Tuesday is that there is a conspiracy to create differences between Imran Khan’s party and the army.

Would not this theme suggest that Shahbaz Gill was a part of this conspiracy because the fuse was lit by the leading spokesperson of the party and Imran Khan’s designated chief of staff? The ruthless manner in which the PTI leader was picked up and the case against him was pursued, with a raid on the house of Shahbaz Gill’s driver and the arrest of his wife, who later was released on bail, provided an indication of the resolve with which the authorities have taken up this case. The plot is bound to thicken.

It is interesting that Shahbaz Gill, in willing to play this role, has rushed in where more prudent leaders of the party would fear to tread. Or is he the courageous follower of his leader who has dared to throw the dice in accordance with some thought-out plan? This is a very pertinent question in light of the politics that Imran Khan has played since his ouster from power in April. It is possible that Shahbaz Gill was groomed for this very purpose.

Apparently, the gambit has not worked. Though Imran Khan himself has been very cautious in this regard, other PTI leaders have gradually expressed their reservations about the views expressed by Shahbaz Gill. Some have called it a ‘blunder’ and others have suggested that their colleague could have a better choice of words. It is important that there is no unqualified support for what Shahbaz Gill has said.

Imran Khan’s Chief Minister in Punjab Chaudhry Parvez Elahi was more categorical about Shahbaz Gill’s controversial observations. His remarks betrayed his past affiliations with the establishment. This variance among the followers of Imran Khan in the degree of endearment of the establishment or its recently drawn factions is likely to create more confusion about Imran Khan’s narrative regarding the neutrals’ role in his ouster.

The manner in which Shahbaz Gill is being disowned by PTI leaders, anticipating that the establishment would make an example of him, may cast a shadow on Imran Khan’s style of politics. Unlike most other leaders who learnt the ropes in other parties, Shahbaz Gill is Imran Khan’s true progeny, in a political context. His lack of civility and his frequent choice of offensive and crude expressions for political adversaries had the stamp of his leader.

If you look carefully, you would realize that there is a method to what would appear to be Shahbaz Gill’s madness. Imran Khan had launched this strategy of making fun of his political opponents during his ‘dharna’ in 2014. Consciously or not, he has reinforced the establishment’s purpose of undermining the profession of politics and degrading politicians as corrupt and inefficient.

If Shahbaz Gill’s statement was a trial balloon, Imran Khan may now learn more about which way the wind is blowing. But there are still many questions about how the powers that be are willing to make their arrangements with various social, political and economic developments that are affecting Pakistan’s destiny. Ultimately, of course, the political forces will have to rise above their greed for power and work together to protect democracy and social justice.

On Wednesday, Imran Khan addressed a ‘press conference’, though it was merely an address through video link. Though the motivation obviously was the arrest of his ‘chief of staff’, he devoted most of his time to explaining the conspiracy that he insisted had been hatched to create differences between the ‘largest party’ of the country and the army.

He even invoked 1971 in this regard. But he remains confused about what he must learn from history and from his ambivalent relationship with the establishment. As for his popular support, there was that ‘tsunami’ in Lahore on October 30, 2011 that was truly stunning. But what happened in the general elections in 2013? And why was he willing, unashamedly, to ride on the establishment’s shoulders in 2018?

Obviously, ‘the times they are a-changing’.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: