Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Imran Khan did not criticize the Army – because he’s not completely insane

A week has passed since PTI’s supporters flooded Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, but the critics are still going strong in their onslaught against Imran Khan. For a whole day after the jalsa the English dailys relented in their attacks on Khan, and congratulated him on proving that his party was as capable of amassing physical supporters as virtual ones. Since that day, however, his detractors seem to have redoubled their efforts to denounce him.
Of course, the traditional criticism of having only Facebook supporters having lost its teeth, others are being repeated with increased zeal. I’ll try to analyse some of these. The first one that was doing the rounds before the Lahore jalsa is that Imran Khan is in cahoots with the establishment. The fact that he did not bring up the issue of the military during his speech is being touted as absolute confirmation of this.  The fact of the matter is that Imran Khan stands a slim chance as it is. He is already punching well above his weight in taking on the PMLN in Punjab and the other major parties elsewhere. What people need to realize is that the military establishment is a force that even the great Zulfiqar Bhutto was unable to tame. The only way to bring the establishment under check is to have a political government that is has such strong populist roots that it cannot be cowed into submission. For this to happen the politicians involved need to have unimpeachable records – an art they have been unable to master. Simply put, the only civilian government that can take on the establishment is one that can call on the people to defend it. A corrupt, inept government has no hope of doing so.  An as yet unelected force that is already in no shortage of enemies would have to be suicidal or insane to start railing against this force at a mass rally during election time. The most anyone can practically hope for from the PTI is an acknowledgement of this problem; an acknowledgement that is forthcoming both in Imran Khan’s book and in several interviews.  Incidentally, it is spectacularly amusing to see political parties also raising this concern since all of them have their roots in the military establishment as well - PPP, PMLN and MQM all have their roots in patronage from one military government or the other.
Furthermore, the military establishment itself is an odd creature. Through the 50s, right up to the 90s, it was criticized for being a puppet in the hands of the United States. It was accused of exercising absolute control over its indigenous population while minting money as a mercenary force for the US. Throughout Pakistan’s history, the army has always been much closer to the US than any civilian government could ever hope to be (Of course, this doesn’t mean that the civilian governments weren’t falling over themselves to prove their loyalty to the US, it just means they never succeeded in making themselves indispensible).  These days, the image of the establishment is very different. It is seen as an ultra-nationalist, pan-Islamic, anti- American force that wants to take over the world. In essence, it is seen to be intent on fighting an ideological war. Of course, the actions of the Musharraf regime were in direct conflict to these assertions. The Musharraf regime was exercising the traditional pre-Islamization role of the establishment in fighting the US’s wars in exchange for money, at the same time silencing detractors. At that point in time, Imran Khan was the only one to call his government on this issue, and he still hasn’t changed his stance.
A trivial issue raised against Khan is whether he will be able to translate his showing in Lahore into actual votes. If he can get them to come to Minar-e-Pakistan, he can get them to the polling booth. I really cannot fathom how this could even be raised as a serious issue. There was a mad rush during the time of the rally to get votes registered, and it appears pretty obvious to me that the next election may have one of the highest turnouts in history. Or am I missing something?
The more serious charges against Khan are made by sullen-faced stalwarts of the PMLN. Khan has not established a set policy as to how he is going to go about making the changes he promises. One must confess that this is the most troubling aspect of PTI’s campaign and one hopes they will sort this out sooner rather than later. The oft-repeated argument here is that problems of corruption are not as simple as PTI makes them out to be. It is not good enough that he wants to make a difference. The answer, of course, is no it isn’t. But it is the absolute minimum requirement. Surely a government that has no intention of rectifying the system is worse than one without a readily available plan. I think it is high time that the Pakistani public stopped trying to get the system to work in spite of bad governance and, for once, faced the menace head on. It’s really high time we started demanding more from our politicians in terms of honesty. In this regard, at his worse, Khan can set the bar at an absolute zero for future politicians.
Another charge against Imran Khan is that he is making compromises that will ensure that he is unable to deliver on his promises. The main line of argument here is that he is inducting too much of the old guard to be able to bring about a change. I can only assume that anyone who makes this assertion is going to be voting for the PTI anyway, as they already see the entire old guard as corrupt and inept – at least with Khan, they will be under new management. At the same time it is interesting to note that Khan is accused of not having any experienced politicians in his party. A catch 22 situation if there ever was one. What the PTI is faced with is the problem of trying to remain clean while performing in a political system riddled with corruption. This is more the fault of our system than the PTI. Nobody should be under any illusions; Khan will have to compromise at some level if he is to have any hope of coming to power. The question is, how much? Will the compromise turn the PTI into another PPP or will Khan be able to keep a check on his rank and file? It is a mammoth task, but one definitely worth undertaking. Many Pakistanis have given up hope of ever seeing a prosperous country. The mass exodus out of the country is testament to this, so it doesn’t take a genius to predict that the odds are phenomenally against Imran Khan. But the PTI has injected new life into the political system and captured the imagination of young people. One can only hope that Khan can amass a backing that ensures his subordinates are unable to overwhelm him.
One great thing about the demonstration of PTI’s popularity is that it has jolted the incumbent parties. The PMLN, being challenged only by the spectacularly maligned PPP, had fallen into a stupor, but the fact that the PTI is now nibbling at their heels means that they have jumped into action. Suddenly they are falling over themselves to clarify their financial accounts and demonstrate the good governance they had once been so proud of. By making such an issue out of corruption, the PTI has put immense pressure on urban parties such as the PMLN to avoid tainted politicians.
Finally, the one stance of Imran Khan that seems to ruffle the most feathers among the writers of English blogs – the Taliban. I will not even bother to clarify the fact that he does not in fact condone terrorism. If you don’t know that already, anything I will say will be a waste of time. But let me start with a sentence I just read in an article on Pakistan Today: “Is playing music all that is required to prove your ‘liberal’ ‘leftist’ credentials?” A good question, to which my answer would be yes, it would appear so, because the people who profess to being part of the liberal, leftist cadre in our society seem to be exactly that shallow. These labels seem to have no meaning at all except that they want to be allowed to have a good time. These people don’t stand for social welfare, they don’t stand for social equality, they don’t seem to be asking for alleviation of income disparity or protesting the damaging effects of globalization, or even protecting the environment. They have no qualms with violations of international law or human rights. If anything, they seem to be spectacularly trigger-happy for people who claim to be progressive thinkers. Their first instinct at any issue is to go to war. They seem to think that the rest of the country can be pummeled into liberal, leftist thought (whatever that means in this day and age). This is their equivalent of spreading democracy around the world.
We need to accept the fact that the Taliban are a not just a product of religious brain-washing, but also a reaction to decades of disenfranchisement. The country has let, and is continuing to let its most vulnerable citizens down. The solution cannot be to go on an all-out war against the population we have spurned. The way out is to try and rehabilitate the people we have antagonized to this degree. They need to be weaned away from the most extreme religious views. This is not an immediate solution – it will take decades. But it has to be tried, and tried again, unless we want to get sucked into an all-out civil war. We need to remember that all governments have a penchant for painting all opposition as intransigent. It is a trick they seem to have picked up from the Americans. Remember the godless communists and the Muslim extremists? In Pakistan we too had the treacherous Bengalis who wanted to break the country. We took up a military operation against them and look how well that turned out. Or the Balochis, they too were insurgents bent upon breaking up the country. We bombed them, and invited others to do the same, now we’re picking up the pieces.
Incidentally, it never occurred to anyone to start a military operation against the Taliban until 9/11. Even then, it was done out of fear of the US reprisal rather than because they were an immediate threat to us. We saw the US and the Taliban, and decided we could take on the Taliban much more easily than the US and went for it. The fault of the Taliban is that they didn’t die out. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that we were fighting some war for the security of the whole world. Sitting in Lahore, I confess I may have a simplistic view of things. But with the limited information coming out of the affected regions, it is difficult to get an unbiased view. I do suspect, however, that the PTI’s performance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa would be a good indicator to how accurate they are on their problem assessment.
To close, I will confess I am cautious in my support of the PTI, but I like to believe its on the right track. I realize Imran Khan’s claims are idealistic. But I fail to see how having an honest idealist will not have a positive effect on the governance of the country.  If it does not manage to eradicate the menace of corruption in our country, it would at least attempt to curb it to manageable levels. It would restore the lost confidence in the government systems, which is in itself a cause for much of our woes.
Of course, Imran Khan could turn out to be a complete scam; a power-monger or a closet Mr. Ten Percent. I have no crystal ball to check whether he goes home after his rallies and practices his evil laugh. Conversely, he could be too much of an idealist and step on too many toes all at once, because let’s face it nobody in our power structure wants a truly incorruptible leader. Not the army with its fingers in so many pies, not the industrialists who are dodging their taxes, not the feudal lord, not the patwaris and thaanedaars he openly denounced in Lahore, not even the media that is getting its funding from so many different vested interests. If Imran Khan tried to be as revolutionary as he says he is, he probably wouldn’t make it to the assembly alive.
Where self-centered pragmatism has failed us so many times, perhaps it’s time for a bit of selfless idealism. There is one aspect of the PTI’s campaign that really bothers me though. Imran Khan is not the last hope for Pakistan. I will support him, and if he fails, I will try again!