s the PDM’s campaign against the PTI government “sputtering like a car with a broken gasket”? As evidence of this sharp rebuke, critics point to the “confusion” in PDM ranks about aims and objectives, tactics and strategy, miscommunications and miscalculations, and so on. Their conclusion: Imran Khan and the Miltablishment are solidly entrenched and the PDM is whistling in the dark.
To be sure, the PDM’s prospects would have been brighter if all 11 components had been on the same page on core issues, like the Long March, resignations from the National Assemblies or Provincial Assemblies or both, elections to the Senate, bye-elections to NA and PAs, and targets (Imran Khan, Miltablishment, COAS, DGISI, one or all by turns). But considering the Herculean task of breaking up the powerful Miltablishment edifice on which Imran Khan sits, and the vested personal interests of Miltablishment leaders, compared to the inherent weakness of the PDM in which its components are naturally inclined to pull in different directions owing to their ideological left, right, conservative, religious or pragmatic political leanings, we might reasonably look at the glass as half full and not half empty.
A year ago, Maulana Fazal ur Rahman went on a solo fight to Islamabad and didn’t achieve anything. Today, the PDM is alive and threatening to kick. Last year, the PMLN was led by Shahbaz Sharif and Co who believed in a soft rapprochement with the Miltablishment. Today, the failure of that strategy has created the conditions for the rise of Maryam Nawaz Sharif as a populist heroine under whose banner the PMLN Old Guard has hypnotically fallen in line. A year ago, the predominant narrative in the media was about the corruption of the opposition as laid down by Imran Khan. Today it is about the unaccountable arrogance of the NAB, the corruption and incompetence of the PTI government and the blatant partisanship of the Miltablishment. A year ago, the focus of the debate was on “No NRO for the opposition”. Today, it is “No NRO for Imran Khan”.
But something far more critical and significant has happened along the way that will have a profound bearing on state, democracy and civil society in the longer run. For decades, insignificant sections of disgruntled sub-nationalists on the periphery were known for their anti-Miltablishment views. Today, significant sections of mainstream Pakistan are openly critical of Miltablishment interventions in politics. Yesterday, all political parties were known as children of the Militablishment. Today, most are disavowing their umbilical links with the same Miltablishment. The essential dialectical point to note in this context is not that this factor hasn’t assumed transformational dimensions in the here and now (and hence is unimportant) but that it is inexorably growing after having broken through the “sacred cow” barrier (and is hence very important).
Indeed, those who say that the anti-Miltablishment narrative of Nawaz Sharif and his heir Maryam has hurt the cause of the PDM in general and the PMLN in particular are missing the wood for the trees. It’s true that Nawaz Sharif has paid the price for demanding constitutional rights from the Miltablishment. But it’s more true that taking on the Miltablishment in opposition today is a better bet than continuing to appease it when it has already decided to nurture a hybrid system to the exclusion of the mainstream parties and leaders. Far from diminishing the PMLN’s zero prospects, this policy has compelled the Miltablishment to try and revive the pro-Miltablishment lobby in the PMLN headed by Shahbaz Sharif even as it tries to restrain the anti-national consensus narrative of Imran Khan that has put the Miltablishment in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
Then there are those cynical empiricists who are looking for data of a popular uprising among the unwashed classes no less than among the trading and professional ones against the government or Miltablishment. And, not finding any such, like the “transformational” Lawyers Movement (that was “transformational” in the opposite sense in the end), wonder how the PDM or PMLN can succeed in this sea of sullen apathy. Of course, they are right. But only until they are proven wrong. It may be recalled that no organized party led the student revolt in 1967 that brought down General Ayub Khan. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was sitting prettier in April 1977 (he was gone three months later) than Imran Khan in January 2021; and so on. On the global stage, to mention only the most dramatic, who trotted out any empirical data to forecast the sudden demise of the USSR in 1989, or who identified the hawker whose suicide in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring, or who anticipated the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York that unleashed unprecedented death and destruction in Afghanistan and the Middle East?
In the final analysis, the PDM’s success or failure will not depend solely on whether it can pull off a mighty heave-ho movement backed by the Punjabi or Pashtun urban middle classes to oust Imran Khan. Nor will it depend only on swelling numbers in jalsas or Long Marches. More likely, it will depend on the nature of the attrition guerilla war against both Imran Khan on the streets and against the Miltablishment in the popular imagination that feeds into continuing political instability and economic uncertainty weakening the rationale of the hybrid regime. With or without the PPP, the most potent weapon in the PDM’s arsenal is to keep the political pot boiling with parliament in a state of constitutional disrepair through threats of resignation and disruption of bye-elections.
This would lead to the conclusion that sooner or later, the Miltablishment will see Imran Khan and the PTI as part of the problem and not the solution. That’s when a way out of this crisis will be found to salvage the eroding sanctity of the state and its organs.