Tuesday, March 22, 2022

The day after the vote of no trust

The loser of 2022 will not be as peaceful or gracious in defeat. This undermines the entire enterprise of the Pakistani republic

A general view of a highway with shipping containers blocking the entry point in Islamabad, Pakistan October 27, 2021. — Reuters
A general view of a highway with shipping containers blocking the entry point in Islamabad, Pakistan October 27, 2021. — Reuters

At a time when the prime minister of the country faces an existential political challenge, Pakistan is hosting the OIC foreign ministers’ meeting — as major an international event as the country has hosted in recent years.

In the days leading up to the OIC conference, we learned that India had launched a missile at Pakistan — apparently erroneously. On the weekend that foreign ministers started landing in Pakistan, terrorists were attacking Pakistani soldiers in at least three different locations.

By the time the OIC foreign ministers have cleared out of Islamabad at the end of the week, thousands of political activists, and supporters of the PTI, the JIU-F, the PPP and the PML-N will have begun to descend upon D-Chowk in the federal capital. 

How these poor people will manage the transportation, food, boarding and lodging for their respective heroic journeys is either a credit to the inflation-busting Imran Khan government or the miraculous benevolence of the Sufi saints whose spirits are a source of the near infinite blessings this country extracts and exploits the way our furnaces burn fossil fuels — like there is no tomorrow.

Read more: Dissident PTI lawmakers spurn PM’s offer to rejoin government

‘Like there is no tomorrow' is also a good tagline for Pakistani decision-makers — no matter what colour uniform they wear, and no matter how democratic they pretend to be. 

Secure the personal interest — like there is no tomorrow. Buy dollars — like there is no tomorrow. Issue government paper — like there is no tomorrow. Make deals with terrorists — like there is no tomorrow. Reduce the price of gasoline or petrol — like there is no tomorrow. Pretend Iran is as important as Saudi Arabia — like there is no tomorrow. Declare a moratorium on security collaboration with the United States (remember ‘absolutely not’) — like there is no tomorrow. Issue anti-CPEC statements (remember Razzak Dawood) — like there is no tomorrow. 

But as surely as we are all here now, and as surely we will all die one day, there will be a tomorrow. What happens tomorrow?

PM Imran Khan may or may not survive the vote of no-confidence, but Pakistan will have to pay for the buffoonery of reducing the price of gasoline. Pakistan will also be paying the price for other, more global buffoonery: decoupling, supply chain disruptions, post COVID-19 recovery disruptions, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Read more: Constitutional process should be followed, says CJP Bandial

Higher prices for fuel, wheat, and other commodities, as well as the upcoming Ramazan consumption spike and price hike, will all generate substantial economic pain for the Pakistani microeconomy. Unprecedented heatwaves during the holy month and unrelenting rigidity (both self-imposed and via residual gifts of the Zia era) will cause people to drop on the street like flies. The declaration of victory against COVID-19 seems early, and if it was to make any kind of a comeback statement, this would certainly exacerbate what may be a very painful late spring in Pakistan.

By the time we all (InshaAllah) celebrate Eidul Fitr at the beginning of May 2022, any sane or responsible finance minister will need to push for a significant increase in gasoline prices — perhaps as much as Rs25 per litre higher than it is right now. The images, tickers, tweets and headlines from such a price hike alone will saddle either PM Khan or whoever comes in to replace him, with a permanent political crisis not unlike the one that PM Khan already faces.

The 2022-2023 budget exercise, no matter whether PM Khan is in power, or someone else has replaced him, will be an exercise in semantics only. There is no version of a budget that can be debated and agreed through May and June this year that will not need to be replaced with a new, revised budget within the first two quarters of the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, 2022.

By August 2022, if not earlier, a fiscal and current account deficit crisis is going to be the principal headache that faces whoever is running Pakistan — with the only path out being major injections of capital by foreign entities (it turns out that ‘sovereignty’ is a luxury that only buffoon-proof economies can afford).

Between now and August 2022, when the Taliban regime in Kabul would have been in power for a year, the TTP will be more empowered and enabled than ever before. The evidence for this is manifest in dozens of statements by both the Afghan Taliban leadership itself and the series of recreant talks that Pakistan has been holding with the terrorist group since before the fall of Kabul — as part of PM Khan’s conviction that talking to terrorists is better than fighting them. 

The trifecta terrorist threat (TTP-Daesh-Baloch separatists) Pakistan is now dealing with is much more complex than what fighters of Pakistan’s first war on terror (2007-2015) had to contend with. Key questions they face include:

  • What is the degree to which veterans of the first war terrorists (like LeJ) have melted into and integrated with Daesh?
  • Where are the foot soldiers of the remnants of Kashmir-focused groups like the LeT and JeM? How have they been prevented from going the way Ilyas Kashmiri and others of that ilk went a la Al Qaeda?
  • How will Pakistani public opinion be mobilised to fight the second war on terror with the kind of extreme partisanship and divisiveness that will now paint the country for as long as PM Khan continues to be in politics?
  • And, perhaps most importantly, as the Peshawar Imambargah terrorist attack on Shias demonstrated: how will Pakistan defend the country from the sectarian divide that is so easily exploited by Pakistan’s known enemies (like Daesh and India) and hidden enemies (like those entities and countries that support terror in Pakistani with one hand, while they shake Pakistani leaders’ hands with the other)?

As the security situation in Pakistan worsens (and it has been worsening since 2020), the political coherence of the country is an ever-growing priority. The country’s ability to negotiate favourable outcomes globally (such as at the UN, or FATF, or SCO), is increasingly dependent on the ability of those governing the country to act with the legitimacy and agency that flows naturally from a predictable and trusted political compact at home.

The compromised 2018 election did not do the kind of damage to this predictability and trust as much as the current instability is doing. And the reason for this is simple: the losers of the 2018 process showed that they could step back and try to negotiate better outcomes for themselves and their political progeny. 

The loser of 2022 — and it looks increasingly likely that this will be Imran Khan — will not be as peaceful or gracious in defeat. This undermines the entire enterprise of the Pakistani republic, ironically during the week that we celebrate our sixty-fifth Republic Day.

Instead of conversations about how the elite plan to navigate Pakistan out of these dangerous waters, the message from the Pakistani military and civilian elite to Pakistanis is: there is no tomorrow (and there was no yesterday). 

Hence, the low end of the intellectual spectrum spews out tired old nonsense from the late 1950s about the need for a presidential system, and how democracy just doesn’t work. 

Meanwhile, the supposedly high end of the intellectual system onanistically celebrates the potential coronation of Maulana Fazlur Rehman as the country’s single most important democratic figure. It would be funny if all this was a work of fiction. It is tragic that it is fact.

Meanwhile, what does the Pakistani elite’s acting like there is no tomorrow mean in terms of signalling to India, to Daesh and the TTP, and to global financial institutions?

Tomorrow is definitely coming. May Allah protect and bless all Pakistanis.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

Originally published in The News