What are the voters thinking?

The disastrous governance in Punjab has damaged the PTI brand, but not nearly as badly as the PML-N believes it has

Mosharraf Zaidi
A local is casting his vote. — Reuters/File
A local is casting his vote. — Reuters/File

Imran Khan is exactly as advertised. He has been since the day he took office. Those optimists that assumed that he would ever be anything vastly more than what he is and always has been, are having a comeuppance for the ages. 

The reason selecting Pakistan’s leaders should be left to voters at election time is exactly this: when things go awry, it is the voters who will feel the pain of their poor decisions. It is the voters who must then ameliorate for their sins at the ballot box.

In July 2018, the voter certainly spoke — but there were enough interference, underhandedness, unevenness, and disruptions to normalcy, that the voice of the voter was accompanied by something significantly more obvious than the invisible hand that acts in the national interest in so many countries. 

Euphemisms like the agricultural department are cute and quirky, but as the engineers and architects of the 2018 election result are now discovering, the costs of intervention are significant. 

There is nothing cute or quirky about the risks to the national interest being incurred by His Patriotic Highness, the Fresh Prince of Bani Gala, the Great Kaptaan-e-Zamana, the Holy Scion of Zaman Park, Prime Minister Imran Khan.

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The course correction to the errors of commission in 2018 is that we are now supposedly witnessing the pulling away of the ‘invisible hand’. 

That’s how the opposition’s supposed big talk has actually transformed into a metastasizing political challenge for PM Khan: this so-called vote of no-confidence. But this notion of the pulling away of the invisible hand is nonsense, in every sense of the word.

Pakistan isn’t a tank, it is 220 million people. Tanks respond to the tank drivers’ commands: left, right, straight ahead — full speed, stop. 

A country is slightly more complicated. It was said best, perhaps, in Rage Against the Machine’s classic ‘Bullet in the Head’: “They say jump and you say how high, you’re braindead, you got a (redacted) bullet in your head”. 

The notion that mass-macro level decisions can be “reversed” or fixed is the work of fantasy fiction. The strategic intervention of 2018 has recast Pakistan, permanently, as all interventions always do. There is no ‘fixing’ this. 

And what ‘this” is, is very different from what the Pakistani military, political, media and capitalist elite are willing to fathom. The only one among the Zaman Park Plus Plus crowd that really seems to understand this? PM Khan.

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The opposition’s vote of no confidence is about securing power — it is hard spending three years in the wilderness of zero fat, zero carb politics. The military and intelligence community’s seeming newfound distaste for proactive political intervention is about saving Brand Establishment — it is hard to have to carry the burden of incompetence, especially when you believe that you are the very definition of competence (at everything, but especially securing the national interest), and everyone else is incompetent (at securing that national interest, and everything else too).

And thus, PM Khan and the PTI’s newfound angst at ‘the West’, and appetite for Pakistani independence and autonomy is really not about the West or Imran Khan’s disdain for the US, or even about Pakistani sovereignty at all. It is about fending off the challenge of the Opposition, and responding to the withdrawal of the scriptwriters from the ‘one-page’.

The electorate that PM Khan needs to win over has evolved since 2018. The disastrous governance in Punjab has damaged the PTI brand, but not nearly as badly as the PML-N believes it has. The reason? PTI voters in Punjab voted for the PTI despite the impressive delivery record of the PML-N in Punjab over the course of Punjab’s decade of development, from 2008 to 2018. 

What were they thinking? They were thinking the same thing that many serving and retired military officers think. The same thing that even many middle-class supporters of the PML-N, PPP, PML-Q, JUI-F and ANP think. They were thinking about their sense of identity and their role in their country.

This is not the picture of the traditional voter in Pakistan. And so traditional analyses about Pakistan’s politics find it hard to fathom. The median age in Pakistan is below 23. 

Many young Pakistanis are, on the whole, more sceptical of genetically inherited democracy than they are of sexually transmitted disease. This adds up to a whole lot of social, economic and political change — none of which will go down easy for the traditional Pakistani elite.

PM Khan doesn’t have a lot to offer the young Pakistani outside of an outsized sense of self. This ‘khudi’ has been the lifeblood of political mobilisation in the South Asian Muslim nationalist toolkit for almost a full century. It has delivered two nation-states (Bangladesh and Pakistan), intergenerational sectarian tension (with Shias bearing the brunt of it), low school enrolment levels, wide-scale poverty, and more generally an absence of medal wins in the human condition Olympics (PS: that Hindu extremist run India is a similar shabdeg of dysfunction, hatreds and injustices is a very sad hook to hang the unfulfilled ambitions of Muslim nationalism on). 

PM Khan is only reaching into a well-worn bag of tricks. If Allama Iqbal can use it, and Zulfi Bhutto can use it, and PTV and Radio Pakistan and ISPR can use it, then why can’t our Handsome Saviour?

At various public events, PM Khan has assailed the US and various European nations, including the UK, on issues that have traditionally been described by people like me as ‘policy differences’. 

PM Khan has escalated the language and rhetoric on these policy differences knowing full well that these differences will not be resolved through aggression or attempts to publicly humiliate Pakistan’s Western partners and allies. But PM Khan doesn’t really care about how Moeed Yusuf or Shah Mehmood Qureshi or Masood Khan will engage in repairing Islamabad’s relationships in Washington DC, or London, or Brussels. 

For now, PM Khan cares about one thing and one thing alone: the non-traditional Pakistani voter.

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For this voter, PM Khan isn’t really competing with Maryam Nawaz Sharif or Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. For this voter, his competition is the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and, more worryingly, those that see the Afghan Taliban and wistfully wonder why Pakistan can’t have “THAT”!

To the traditional political analyst, this is all baseless heresy. Pakistan’s voters should be stuck in the same time warp that the Pakistani elite in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi are. Pakistan should forever remain a predictable and manageable entity, within the hands of the elite that feed on it. It is ironic that the manifestation of the elite compact being shaken up is PM Khan — who is nothing if not premium Pakistani elite.

All this was not an organic eventuality in 2018. Pakistan has arrived at this specific time and place because of choices made in 2017, 2018 and thereafter. Imran Khan may survive the vote of confidence, or he may not — but no matter what happens and who is prime minister, the multiple crises that Pakistanis must face are going nowhere.

To blame only Imran Khan for his unhinged diatribes at PTI jalsas now would be disingenuous and self-defeating. Until such incomplete accountability continues, this system will keep manufacturing Zulfi Bhuttos, Nawaz Sharifs and Imran Khans.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

Originally published in The News