he hybrid regime is unravelling not because the combined opposition parties have succeeded in flooring it but because Imran Khan is digging his own grave. In less than three years, he has hounded the opposition, he has outraged the people and he has alienated the very Miltablishment that brought him to office and invested so heavily in the hybrid system. The only reason he’s around today is that the Miltablishment is still poring over the floor plans of the new construction site.
Imran Khan’s narrative was built on three pillars. Accountability of opposition and government. Comparatively better performance. Collaboration not conflict with Miltablishment. He has failed on all three counts.
Mr Khan has pushed NAB, FIA, IB, FBR, etc., to bung opposition leaders into prison on shrill charges of corruption and money laundering of trillions. Yet, despite a relatively compliant judiciary, not one accused has been convicted, not one paisa recovered from anyone. On the contrary, the whole accountability narrative has been converted into a relentless witch hunt which has only served to destroy the credibility of the organs of the state complicit in this engineering. Worse, the focus of accountability has now shifted from the opposition to his own party whose stalwarts are perceived to have their hands in the till but are unduly protected from scrutiny. There are scandals galore in the PTI’s carpetbag — BRT, Malam Jabba, Ring Road, Foreign Funding, Housing Societies, Sugar subsidies, etc., that are now making screaming headlines.
The much-maligned PMLN government’s performance looks stellar in comparison with that of the blundering PTI regime. GDP growth has fallen from 5.5% in 2017-18 to 1.1% in 2020-21; real wages of the working classes have declined by nearly 6% in the last three years compared to growth of 3% in the previous regime; unemployment has risen to 20 million; Impoverishment of the masses has increased as fast as indebtedness of the government; food inflation is galloping at over 15% every year; and so on. Every economic and welfare indicator is down. It is a dismal story of mismanagement and failure on an unprecedented scale. The bigger tragedy is that the machinery of government has now stopped taking or obeying orders and ground to a halt in an environment of fear of unleashed watchdogs and arbitrary postings and transfers.
Imran Khan’s failing anti-corruption narrative and policy performance has now compelled the Miltablishment to step in and stop the rot before its own credibility for imposing this hybrid regime on the hapless people of Pakistan is further eroded. It has long demanded an efficient and clean government in the Punjab, which is half of Pakistan. But there are no takers for it in Bani Gala. It has continued to press for better economic policy but the futile game of musical chairs and U-Turns continues unabated in the power corridors of Islamabad. To cap it all, Imran Khan has refused to support the army chief’s public proposal of the need for a “paradigm change” in foreign relations strategy, especially in “normalizing” with India, based on a national consensus backed by the opposition parties.
Under the circumstances, Shahbaz Sharif is now “free” to pursue his narrative of rapprochement between PMLN and the Miltablishment and consult with Nawaz Sharif in London about the way forward. Thus PMLN spokesmen like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Muhammad Zubair have bent over backwards to deny any rift with the Miltablishment. And efforts are afoot to revive the PDM. Meanwhile, Jehangir Tareen, the Miltablishment’s evergreen asset, has been nudged to set up Forward Blocs in the Punjab Assembly and in the National Assembly, ready to strike if Imran Khan refuses to budge.
There are, however, two stumbling blocks in the developing scenario. The first is Nawaz Sharif’s refusal to accept any compromise on the core elements of his narrative: free and fair fresh elections immediately; and a guarantee of non-interference by the Miltablishment in the affairs of elected civilian governments. The “interim” arrangement after the proposed exit of Imran Khan and the holding of fresh elections, no less than the choice of prime minister in the next dispensation, is also a matter of concern and debate. But these are not insurmountable, provided the Miltablishment is serious about regime change.
The second is the Miltablishment’s fear that Imran Khan out of power might prove to be an even bigger headache than in power, especially if its proposed new arrangement with the PMLN succumbs to trust deficits on both sides in time to come, leaving no fall back position. But this apprehension is unwarranted. The leaderships of the Miltablishment and PMLN are expected to henceforth conduct themselves in a non-antagonistic manner in light of their policies of mutually assured destruction in the past that have come a cropper. No less, Imran Khan will be in no position to attack the Miltablishment since the record will show how hard it had worked to bring him into office and harder still to prop him up when he was flailing about. Equally, Pakistanis are not likely to forget his disastrous performance. Similarly, the media, which has suffered badly at Khan’s hands, is not going to forget or forgive in a hurry. Finally, it is more than likely that the very state institutions that are today targeting his opponents at his behest will turn their guns on him, compelling him to run from pillar to post and busy himself trying to save his skin.
The die is cast. Imran Khan is much too stubborn, arrogant and narcissistic to compromise or change tack. Add the word “superstitious” to this litany of political negatives since his last nuptials. But the PMLN and Miltablishment are realistic and pragmatic political players. Therefore the chances are that sooner rather than later, despite hiccups and false starts, some way forward will be mutually found to reset the political map of Pakistan on a sounder and more workable footing. God knows how desperately we Pakistanis need some representative political stability and concrete social welfare in our everyday lives.