By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
IT is all so predictable. The raids on homes of opposition leaders and workers. Heavy-handed baton charges and tear gas shelling. The same opposition workers who decried state repression then engaging in wanton destruction of public property — and burning trees for good measure!
We have been here many times before. A few months ago, it was the PTI in government, putting up containers all over Islamabad, deploying both carrot and stick to push back the then opposition PDM. Even the nomenclature hardly changes. The opposition announces a (Haqiqi) Azadi march/ long march to boot out corrupt rulers; the government propaganda machine responds in kind.
There are, of course, other players in this familiar story. For instance, in early April, some saw the top court as being in the PDM/PPP corner when it appeared to force the hand of the then PTI government, literally at the midnight hour. Six weeks later, there is a perception that it is giving Imran Khan a long leash in his self-proclaimed mission to win Pakistan’s ‘freedom’.
And then there is the defender of the country’s sovereignty, ideological frontiers and so on. The PTI and PDM/PPP may be the obvious antagonists, and the courts the supposed arbiters of justice, but everyone knows that the establishment’s top brass is front and centre in all that has gone on over the past few months.
There has been a great deal of speculation about rifts within the institution as well as internal differences about how to live down the failures of the hybrid experiment fronted by Imran Khan. The truth is that ordinary mortals like us are not privy to such palace intrigues so it is simply best for us to state what we know for sure. Namely, that the establishment’s hegemony is sustained across the government-opposition divide by fomenting parliamentary majorities and then undermining them when ‘change’ is required. Extra-parliamentary forces are also mobilised when necessary.
Of course, politicians are not simply puppets and can bite the hand that feeds them. Nawaz Sharif, it is worth being reminded, was Gen Ziaul Haq’s protégé, subsequently colluding with the likes of Hamid Gul to undermine the PPP. Some believe he has now ‘matured’ and is no longer willing to take dictation. And his brother?
Imran Khan, of course, would neither have ascended to the country’s highest elected office without support from the top brass, nor, by the same token, been booted out of office if the latter had not turned ‘neutral’. In the weeks that have followed their deposal, PTI leaders and their supporters have deployed substantial rhetoric against the ‘neutrals’. But does this mean that Imran Khan is no longer interested in seeking establishment patronage?
Indeed, the abrupt and anti-climactic end on Thursday morning to what Imran Khan had promised his supporters would be an indefinite sit-in may well have followed communication between Khan and the top brass encouraging him not to put all his eggs into the Haqiqi Azadi basket. Rest assured, the establishment will continue to play both government and opposition in weeks to come as the underlying structural crises of state, economy and society worsen.
While PTI supporters and police engaged in pitched battles in Islamabad and Lahore, the finance minister was in Doha, essentially pleading with the IMF to bail out the economy yet again. The IMF, ever the guarantor of investors’ interests over those of working masses, refused until the by now infamous fuel subsidy is withdrawn. Meanwhile, there are said to have been high-level phone conversations with the Saudi crown prince to secure a few billion to tide us over for a few more weeks.
When the economic noose tightens, don’t expect that the various constituent elements of our venal ruling class will sacrifice much. Even as TV, print and social media obsess over the tragi-comic switching of roles between the PTI and PDM/PPP, the judiciary’s perceived partiality and various generals pulling the strings, Sindhi masses suffer excruciating heatwaves and water shortages, Balochistan’s people fall victim to cholera, Cholistan’s animals die, and suffocating inflation continues to rip through the innards of even white-collar households.
As disturbingly, thousands of pine nut trees in the Sherani forest in Balochistan have been burned to dust and the only meaningful official response has been that of the Iranian air force rather than our own authorities. Is there anyone in this sordid story that is even remotely concerned with future generations?
Maybe at some point there will be a popular uprising beyond choreographed Azadi marches that symbolise genuine freedom for working people. The PTI has certainly generated crazed support amongst certain segments of this brutalised society, even as the PDM and PPP retain their own strongholds. Whatever the permutation of government-opposition, however, class and state power remain unchallenged.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.