Beyond Mush-Imran

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Qazi Faez Isa is a principled judge. The FIA is harassing us and raiding our homes. The media is blacking us out. Such refrains emanated from opposition circles on an almost daily basis for many years. In a stunning reversal, the boot is now on the PTI’s foot.

This is not a victory for democracy. The crackdown on PTI social media accounts, for instance, illustrates that state institutions like the FIA do not change with a new incoming government. As some have already noted, raids were being ordered against PTI stalwarts even before Shehbaz Sharif’s swearing in, which is to say that the establishment is still boss. More generally, colonial statecraft is not just the modus operandi of the PTI.

It is certainly true that Imran Khan and the PTI have introduced a vindictiveness to Pakistani politics akin to the Trump phenomenon in the US. But this does not mean that we should be gleeful about the sudden change in the PTI’s fortunes. More important questions need to be raised and answered.

Firstly, we must think deeply about the PTI’s core support base — and here I mean those who have come out on to the streets to oppose Imran Khan’s deposal as prime minister rather than PTI MNAs and MPAs. Yes, many in big cities like Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad hail from relatively affluent segments, but there are many young people of modest means who are also Khan’s supporters.

In my calculation, this youthful political subject — and s/he is a political subject, even with all the vitriol — has its genesis in the Musharraf years, when digital technology began to shape the polity and demographic change proved the dictatorship’s biggest weapon in its ideological vilification campaign against the ‘corrupt’ and ‘dynastic’ PML-N and PPP.

This youthful political subject has now added the regime change rhetoric to its arsenal to build upon the relatively superficial idioms of corruption and dynastic politics that it was already deploying. Whether we like it or not, the Musharraf-Imran lineage of youthful political subjects is here to stay. The challenge for those who imagine progressive politics as more than an establishment-centric merry-go-round is whether and how to engage with this subject.

Recall that the end of the Musharraf dictatorship corresponded with unbridled condemnation of the establishment on the streets. But that sentiment could not be deepened because a progressive political alternative was absent. Thus followed the Imran Khan phenomenon.

The anti-establishment trends and sloganeering at PTI protests of recent days may well be a flash in the pan. But are we just resigned to the fact that the PTI’s brand of populism will descend into proto-fascism? I would rather contemplate longer-term strategies of how to engage the youthful political subject.

A related and immediate question is that of the economy. As per Akbar Zaidi, there are serious challenges awaiting whoever takes the reins of government for the foreseeable future. The incumbent pattern — which implicates all mainstream parties and not just the PTI — is to adopt IMF conditionalities and allow big business as well as rich overseas Pakistanis to make and take their money out of the country at will, and then periodically react to growing public discontent by announcing blanket subsidies.

This piecemeal approach will eventually lead to the kind of situation unfolding currently in Sri Lanka (although that country’s fate has been triggered by the pandemic to a greater extent than Pakistan). Progressive politics in Pakistan will, instead, have to spell out a genuinely transformative economic programme which must include rural industrialisation/public works programmes, land and other asset redistribution, progressive taxation and a peace dividend with our neighbours that allows us to cut our bloated national security apparatus down to size. Only then can we expect genuine relief from the IMF and imperialist power more generally. And only then can we promise long-term well-being to the youthful majority.

After experiencing the PTI’s reactionary populism, it is natural that many of us are heaving a sigh of relief. The PPP, PML-N, JUI-F and others who now occupy the treasury benches will not, however, be able to explain away Pakistan’s long-standing problems as a PTI inheritance. It is worth being reminded that the relative euphoria that accompanied the end of the Musharraf dictatorship and the high point of the 18th Amendment dissipated because underlying demographic, economic and other structural factors were not addressed.

In short, we need a meaningful political and economic programme. We can continue to lament ‘youthiyas’ or engage in political gossip about whether the establishment is divided and Gen Bajwa’s decision not to seek another extension past November. But this will neither end militarisation of the state, nor halt the politics of hate.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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