The effects of neutrality

The last time the establishment didn’t win was in 1988


Why is Imran Khan demanding fresh elections? One reason is that it is the only means he has of getting back into power. The not-so-subtle hints that the military should intervene does not really provide him another means, as acknowledge a reality: that he has not developed a support base capable of bringing him to office in the teeth of institutional resistance.

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An important factor that is perhaps ignored is that the 2018 election was not really won by Imran Khan. His PTI did emerge as the largest party in the National Assembly, but it fell short of the absolute majority needed to elect Imran as Prime Minister. For that, he had to win over independent and smaller parties, the so-called allies, whose switching brought down his government.

As he himself has made clear since his ouster especially, their support was only made possible because of military support. The withdrawal of that support was what made his government fall. As a result, in his narrative, the COAS and DGISI move from being good guys to being ‘neutral’, a word that was once perfectly acceptable, but now is pejoratively associated with animals, though it is one again positive if shown during the Long March.

Part of the problem with Imran, and of the type of politics that he practises, is that neutrality is not an acceptable political position. Even at the height of their political confrontation, neither the PPP nor the PML(N) ever decried neutrality, accepting it as a valid position to hold. True, the neutral person should support their party, but no one thought it immoral to be neutral. It went without saying that government employees, whether working for the Sindh Agriculture Department or the Pakistan Army, were supposed to be neutral.

Now, it seems, the goalposts have shifted. Not supporting Imran is morally reprehensible. That seems to run counter to the basis of democracy, of the free market of ideas. Incidentally, it also seems to run counter to the Islamic concept of morality, where the Quran, the Hadith and legal rules derived thereby are the basis of morality. The concept of hating the sin, not the sinner, exists, which means that the corrupt person should not be disliked, only the corruption. The corruption may be repented, or punished, in which case it is purged.

That is the underpinning of the Islamic justice system: the purpose is not deterrence or revenge, though they might follow, but to punish in this world, purge of the offence and preserve the offender from a much more horrific punishment in the Hereafter.

Of course, whatever the legal system, there is the little detail of a trial. However, the PTI seems to operate under a legal system where a declaration by Imran, supported or not by evidence, is the equivalent of a trial, perhaps superior to it. That means not only that Imran used to refuse to have even the minimum contact with the opposition that was necessary, but has transformed a normal (though rare) application of the Constitution, with the transfer of power from one party to another, into a titanic struggle between Good and Evil. While Imran seems to have no problems being personified as Good, Shehbaz Sharif is finding it difficult to be the personification of Evil. More to the point, so is the COAS.

The fact that the usual tigerish campaign against the ousted government has not started may encourage Imran to believe that while the cat is away the mouse will play, and the very neutrality of the institution will allow existing advantages to be extended to his candidates.

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The COAS probably has a right to feel more wounded than anyone else, because Imran is calling him names for playing his constitutional role. However, as he is probably finding out, support for one side cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Whoever did, the task was incredible. There was the institutional belief, which the Pakistani military shared with all professional militaries the world over, that their political masters (the politicians) are scoundrels. This was overcome for Imran. This allowed him to get the sort of help he needed to achieve power.

That means there are mechanisms in place for the delivery of constituencies where the race is close in favour of one candidate or the other. It goes to the credit of Imran that he brought the PTI to a point of competitiveness where his PTI emerged as the largest party, with the right sort of help.

That help varies from constituency to constituency, and probably cannot reverse a trend. However, it probably does not vanish with a simple order of neutrality. What exactly it is, is not known for sure. The most concerted effort to identify it came in 1988, when the PPP tried to find out why it did not achieve the absolute majority it expected. Apart from a white paper, the effort did not come to much, perhaps because it could uncover nothing.

It might be remembered that in 1988, the election result was such that the establishment did not get what it wanted. Nawaz Sharif did make an attempt to form a government at the centre, with the 56 IJI seats as his base, but it did not compete within the 93 the PPP had won, and his effort fizzled before it started.

It seems that Imran hopes for an even better result than the PPP got then, while as bereft of establishment support. One advantage he does have is that whereas the establishment was active in 1988, this time around, it will be neutral. There remains the question of what happens to its potential. ‘Electables’ are ‘electables’ because they have built, or have inherited and maintained, election machines. Some perennial candidates have their vote tallies enhanced by supportive elements, which elements tell them which party ticket to apply for. The party is told who to give the ticket to.

Apart from such candidates, there is a general hype created for the party that has won approval. The other side finds that it faces a slew of corruption cases. Its candidates, often not the best in the constituency, and face legal difficulties. The media contains much back-and-forth, but the trend is in favour of the party designed to win.

Because of this, Imran hopes that the neutrality does not go so far as to show what his government was upto. The tales of corruption are deliberately exaggerated, and so far have only resulted in the conviction of Nawaz Sharif in time for the 2019 poll. However, the point that is driven home is that politicians are corrupt. Imran has built his career on something that has been pushed since long before he came into politics.

One problem Imran has is that he has not really expanded his support base. When Bhutto came to power in 1971, his nationalizations, his setting up new corporations and his use of the rationing system (creating a class of depot holders) created a large body of people who were committed to the PPP even decades later. He gave a voice to peasants, workers, and others left behind by the growth of the Ayub years. Perhaps most importantly, this is the era of the rush of migrant labour to the Middle East.

With all of these, he entered the 1977 elections. And his daughter the 1988 and subsequent elections. And presumably his grandson, the coming election. Imran only has a rather vague narrative of standing up to the USA. That might seem a touch-button issue, but Bhutto’s defiance of the USA does not really define his appeal. His defiance came over the nuclear weapon. Ziaul Haq, who deposed him, furthered that programme, and the device was finally exploded under Nawaz.

The fact that the usual tigerish campaign against the ousted government has not started may encourage Imran to believe that while the cat’s away the mouse will play, and the very neutrality of the institution will allow existing advantages to be extended to his candidates. However, the sort of groundswell that would deliver a two-thirds majority is not visible, and he will have to overcome the electorate’s economic suffering While he might transfer the anger over the removal of petrol and power subsidies to his successors, he may not be able to remove the electorate’s memory of his economic management.

The Long March is crucial for Imran not so much because of the pressure it exerts, as an indication of how much support he has from an establishment claiming to be neutral.


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