Deconstructing the marches

August 24, 2014

Punjab’s turf wars hurt Pakistan -- again

Deconstructing the marches

If constructing a protest movement is hard, deconstructing it may be even tougher.

The last week in Pakistan has been brimming with uncertainty. Here is my reading of it (up till Thursday evening as I submit this): while there was no military coup, there has been a soft coup against democracy.

Punjab’s turf wars hurt Pakistan -- again. Punjabi politicians may feel better about their claims for Lahore but Pakistan undoubtedly feels worse. Sharif is much weaker and, therefore, less powerful when it comes to calling the shots on sticky issues, particularly foreign affairs and militancy. Imran and his PTI are the favourite pawn now, even though they may be well intentioned. The PTI is stronger only because it can now be used as a counter-weight to established political parties. The PML-N is much weaker, so is democracy. The military is stronger. And while two political parties survived, Pakistan’s polity for the most part suffered.

Let’s try and deconstruct the events though.

Two demagogues wanted the prime minister’s resignation.

Dr Qadri’s immediate grievances were real. The Model Town, Lahore, tragedy resulted in unfortunate deaths of his workers. The PML-N might have been surprised by how events in Model Town have shaped and controlled its fate. The centralised model of governance in vogue in Punjab, with its efficacy being debatable, is one reason that the CM came in the line of fire for the Model Town tragedy. If he survives this, he needs to think about rearranging his house.

Imran Khan could not muster the numbers he promised. But since he had staked so much on this march, he put on a brave face and lugged along to Islamabad. He needs to look back and analyse why he lacked the numbers -- it was a failure at an organisational, strategic and leadership level, albeit not a fatal one.

The media, much like the country, partly favoured and partly mocked him. In line with one of the prevalent unfortunate trends in Pakistan, electronic media anchors shrugged off dispassionate analysis and took sides.

By the second day, he was written off even by many of his supporters. That, for me, was the classic Imran moment -- odds against him, his ambition against the world. But as much as he loves cricket analogies, politics is longer than a test series and more complex than a World Cup campaign.

Read also: A picture of anarchy 

While I had argued earlier in the same space that these ‘revolutions’ would not be successful, a strategic use of a crowd of 5,000 people along with senior politicians in an ever-nervous capital is no joke. That reality dawned slowly on Khan who earlier bet on a million people showing up.

Once he saw the relatively thin turnout, he had to do two things: keep up the pressure, somehow, and survive in the national imagination. Both had to be done in stages. First came, by now usual, the bad cricket analogies and the terrible speeches. He really needs a speechwriter. An organised party should be able to find one. If he thinks he does not need one, he needs to surround himself with people smarter than him. Neither should be too hard.

Then he thought for 12 hours and came the call that confounded many: civil disobedience.

Regardless of the possible arguments for such a move, it was clear that he had not thought things through since he then had to add a seven-day ultimatum -- subsequently revising it to two -- to the prime minister. If you were Khan’s adversary, you had good reason to smirk at that point. But maybe the federal government was too busy smirking and not attentive enough to the need to be seen to be doing more.

The government’s laziness in negotiating a solution was beginning to make him look stronger than he was. More importantly, the rumour mill was spinning and the government was looking weaker. While Zardari and the PPP-ANP coalition had made some extremely smart and strategic choices to ensure continued democratic rule, the PML-N needed to be more assertive with its responses and statements.

It appears that time away from Pakistan taught Nawaz Sharif the virtues of waiting things out. While it was clearly wise and admirable to restrain the police from breaking up the crowd, he could have done more (and earlier) kill the impression that the government was confused.

The haunting pictures of the Model Town tragedy almost lulled the government to inaction.

Imran had to up the ante constantly and as his subsequent actions made clear, he was willing to be disingenuous. He needed to be seen to be challenging an, according to him, oppressive order so he dubbed it civil disobedience. But his real push was to aggravate the situation. He shamelessly claimed to be non-violent while all the time threatening violence -- making a mockery of the philosophy of non-violence.

The entrance to the Red Zone was arguably a huge mistake on Imran’s part. It forced him to push hard for a result, and hence look desperate. Then came the notices from the apex court, which deftly handled the situation. But the embarrassment piled up for Khan. Not enough was happening. Invading the PM House was no longer an option: hence the negotiations and backtracking. Strategy was missing on both sides while Pakistan searched for answers.

The military establishment was benefiting from the rumour mill. Adding insult to injury were the so-called ‘experts’ on TV. It was astounding to see how so many of them kept referring to a military coup or the military leadership’s preferences.

Maybe it is a side-effect of living in a country that has seen so many military coups that even public intellectuals court the possibility instead of embarrassing those who voice such possibilities. Why can’t anyone suggest that no general should dare to even dream of overthrowing a constitutional order? Will such an approach prevent coups? There is no guarantee. But it will at least, at the very least, add to the public discourse, which results in deterrence to unconstitutional adventures. Supreme Court and High Court judgments leading up to and during the marches achieved precisely such deterrence.

One way of looking at all this is that we avoided a coup. A more realistic appraisal is that the civil-military imbalance became much worse. Lack of management skills precipitated a crisis that should not have been a crisis in the first place. The democrats in Pakistan have good reason to be depressed. Those who don’t care about the system and want to be in power or influence those in power -- regardless of the cost -- have reason to celebrate.