April 6, 2022
ISLAMABAD – SUNDAY may have passed in a flash of politics and noise but its aftershocks will continue for some time. The Supreme Court judgement on the matter and what it paves the way for — be it a restored government or new elections or different — may take time. Even if the legal or constitutional crisis is resolved soon, the political crisis won’t be. But in the meantime, regardless of the shock and horror being expressed, this entire episode is not much different from what we keep inflicting on our political system time and again. The patterns are old and familiar.
Once again, the political class has trotted off to the courts for conflict resolution. Unable to coexist and uncomfortable with the notion of dialogue, deadlocks are referred to other platforms such as the judiciary, where decisions are rarely seen as beneficial for the political class as a whole. And this is not just the case since disrupter Imran Khan entered the picture. Before his big moment on the national stage, there was Memogate. Since Khan’s entry, there has been Panama, which was another example of politics through legalese.
And the price paid by the political class in that case is clear — judicial forums do not resolve political issues and the process ends up playing out to the advantage of forces outside parliament. By price I do not mean the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, but the precedent of a lifetime disqualification of a politician on the basis of financial matters. Sharif senior was disqualified for an iqama and salary matters while Khawaja Asif survived. Imran Khan was spared while Jehangir Tareen was not. The judgement can go any which way. Now it is a sword hanging over any and every politico’s head. As Sunday’s events show, political matters will end up in court, now and forever.
Second, the matter of US intervention too is as old as constitutional shenanigans in our land of the impure. As mentioned earlier, Memogate, is just one example of an ostensibly national security matter that was dragged to the courts for investigation under the public glare. So great was the security breach that the replies submitted by the chief of army staff and the ISI chief were flashed on television screens. But the matter ended as mysteriously as it had begun, having achieved little but the scalp of our ambassador to the US, who was by then not too popular in the party that appointed him.
Back then, it was alleged the government of the day was conspiring with the US government to control the military. This time around, the allegation is that American preferences may have triggered the vote of no-confidence. It appears the PTI’s strategy will be to push for further investigation into the communications. It will not just stretch the matter but also help the party domestically. No one finds the idea of American intervention in Pakistani politics hard to believe; partly because it is true and partly because we have spent the past decade feeding our people a steady diet of external conspiracies, fifth-generation warfare and so on.
The conspiracy will never be proved or otherwise but the myth that Imran Khan was willing to take a stand against the grand imperial power is already beginning to take shape, thanks partly to the reaction of the opposition. This will resound in politics for quite some time.
The grand democratic experiment in Pakistan is one of undemocratic interruptions.
Third, at the risk of being branded a PTI apologist, I would like to suggest that a ‘sin’ nearly as serious as the speaker’s legal acrobatics on Sunday was the no-confidence move.
The grand democratic experiment in Pakistan is one of undemocratic interruptions. Governments do not complete tenures and neither do prime ministers. But post-2008, we seemed to be making progress by letting parliaments and governments complete their tenures, even if prime ministers haven’t. It appeared as if we were at last allowing some unwritten rules of politics to evolve. For a democratic system to function, all the players have to agree to some basic rules. But the no-confidence move put paid to this, followed by the ugly spectre of parliamentarians switching sides and allegations of horse-trading.
The hopes that all this had been left behind in the 1990s were shattered. But there is a reason this tradition matters, especially for political stability which in turn leads to economic stability — the economic indicators since the vote of no-confidence began should be proof enough. Governments cannot battle month-long political crises, every so often leaving the economy and other matters on autopilot, as they fight for survival. This is as true of the 2014 dharna as it is for the vote of no-confidence.
Just consider the terrible decision Khan took to freeze energy prices to thwart the vote, for the ‘reason’ the opposition cited for their move was inflation. The decision is yet to be reversed. Had the no-confidence vote gone through and a PML-N-led government come into being, it would have had its eyes on the next election and hence it would have been under pressure to not take any harsh decisions, which would impact its electoral performance. There was a great risk that it would have also put off difficult decisions. In other words, the can would have been kicked down the road. This is the real crisis, if we are to be honest. Political stability and some basic rules of transition have to be agreed upon, if the politicians and the unelected stakeholders do not want an economic implosion. Stability in policies do not emerge out of thin air but a stable system with clear rules on transition.
And to end this uncertainty and its impact in terms of terrible economic decisions, it would be best to head into elections. And it would be even better if the parties sit down and agree to this instead of allowing this decision to be taken elsewhere and then be imposed on them. Unfortunately, this would mean accepting the PTI’s blatant manipulation in the Assembly but the judgement on Sunday’s move will be given by history, and it will a harsh one.