Witching hour approaches

The entire country is seared, not just Imran


When these lines appear, the vote on the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan will still be days away, but the whole process, through which the country will have gone through, will have an end in sight.

Whatever the result, the question has to be raised: what brought the nation to this juncture? Though the process is constitutional and parliamentary, it is not the same, qualitatively, as of order. For one thing, it is much rarer. Though motions of no-confidence are not unknown, they have not so far brought down a government.

It is as much an indicator of the spirit in which Imran Khan played is cricket that he has not just resisted, but has been willing to tear down the entire structure. However, maybe he has changed. It was not merely a contradiction between his playing days’ campaigning for neutral umpires. To have a one-on-one meeting with the Speaker, who is supposed to be a neutral custodian of the House, but it was noticeable that there was no hypocritical attempt to conceal the meeting; instead, the Speaker called openly on him, at the Prime Minister’s Office, but a videotape released to the news channels.

The Speaker does not even make a pretense of neutrality, and has assured at least one public meeting that the vote would be defeated.

In the fag-end of his life, it seems, Imran has come to the conclusion that neutrality is over-rated. He has not only made neutrality a theological issue, but also a biological one: animals are neutral; opposing him and his government amounts to immorality.

Neutral umpires were necessary to prevent the game from being corrupted. Every competitive sport has to have someone supervise it. A lot of what umpires do could well be done by players, like keeping track of the number of deliveries bowled in an over. However, it does need someone fair to decide whether those deliveries are fair, or no-balls or wides. Then there is the ever-controversial lbw decision, which led to neutral umpires being introduced.

The requirement seems to be for someone who can run the economy well (thus keeping people, especially salaried people, quiet), and achieve the establishment’s goals. Whatever promises might have been made, that might not be possible, not with the compulsions that exist. The establishment already has to deal with one ex-protégé asking “Mujhe kyoon nikala?” Does it need another? 

It is perhaps sad that Imran has seen the end of neutral umpires in Test matches just as he might be seeing the introduction of neutrality in politics. Neutral umpiring was one of the first casualties when Test cricket resumed after the covid-19 pandemic, and the present Pakistan-Australia series, the first in so many years, is being supervised by Pakistani umpires at both ends.

‘At a lower level of cricket, even below the club level, umpires are routinely members of the batting side. They are expected to be fair. This is part of the self-administration of the game, when batsmen routinely toss back to the bowler the ball, which they have deadened with a forward defensive stroke, even though by doing so theory lay themselves open to appeals for ‘handled the ball’.

To make such an appeal is the height of bad form. The inducement for members of the batting side to be fair is that when they themselves will bowl, they will have to rely on members of the opposing team to be fair. Similarly, when one of the panels of chairmen presides over the session of a legislature, he or she is expected to be fair; which is usually the case.

Fairness means making sure that all members get a fair hearing and that all the rules are interpreted uniformly. If the House is hearing the President’s annual address, or the Finance Minister’s Budget speech, the Speaker has it easier than during the debates on these addresses, which will tax not just his energy but also his patience and his temper.

The Speakership in Pakistan is not quite the Westminster model, but has taken on some of the characteristics of the US Speaker, who is not only partisan, but the leader of his party if the President is of the other party. The Speakership is a one-term affair, with no National Assembly Speaker ever having been elected to a second term. It has thus become a sort of Ministry, but even though the Speaker is dependent on the government to hold office, he must be neutral.

Even now, the Speaker is elected by secretary ballot and the PM by a division. While the Speaker is not supposed to know who voted against him (because otherwise he might be unfair with him in calling upon him to speak), the PM must. It would be a turn-up for the books if he was to nominate to the Cabinet someone who had voted against him in the election. By the same token, the vote of no-confidence is by division, so that the PM knows who his opponents in the House are.

Imran and his party have not said so in so many words, but they seem to regard the National Assembly as an electoral college for the Prime Minister, who can pick his team from outside Parliament, who can legislate through ordinance, and enjoys untrammelled authority over state institutions, which also have to pull down his political opponents, along with their day jobs. That Parliament is not only the main legislative organ, but also the principal repository of the national wisdom, is ignored.

This belief in the National Assembly majority as something to be demonstrated once, and then getting the right to a fixed term is US-influenced. What it seems to forget is that a president comes in place of a king, while a prime minister is the chief agent (grown powerful) of that king or president. His position depends on his being able to ‘serve the king’ by having a parliamentary majority which can legislate.

The problem that Imran is facing is because the umpire is refusing to supervise the game. Therefore one has the hope. Widely expressed by PTI supporters, that Imran will be able to pull a rabbit out of his hat, and defeat the no-confidence motion. However, that has not happened so far.

The reason Imran’s supporters are giving for the move against him is that there is a Western conspiracy against him, that he is being punished because he refused to give the USA bases after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. That is an attempt to tap into the same trope that had Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto being made a horrible example. However, Bhutto had rubbed the USA the wrong way because he espoused socialism, which Imran does not.

True, even without nationalizations Imran has attempted a populist social agenda. Imran stands for a type of non-ideological populist social democracy. It should not be ignored that Bhutto was bright, very bright, and formidably well read. Imran may have been to Oxford, but no one has accused him of intellectual prowess.

Imran may learn the hard way that while such a spirit is helpful sometimes, it does not work all the time. Perhaps more important than his fate is the question of what has happened. At best, he will survive, but he will not be unscathed. The question naturally arises, is what more does the establishment want?

The requirement seems to be for someone who can run the economy well (thus keeping people, especially salaried people, quiet), and achieve the establishment’s goals. Whatever promises might have been made, that might not be possible, not with the compulsions that exist. The establishment already has to deal with one ex-protégé asking “Mujhe kyoon nikala?” Does it need another?

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