Crisis 2022: What does the PML-N need to do?

Mosharraf Zaidi
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. — AFP/File
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. — AFP/File 

Much has been made of Crisis 2022 – the multi-layered problems Pakistan faces today in the economic, political, cultural and social realm. I anoint it Crisis 2022 because many of the other fitting titles don't do justice to everything the ‘crisis’ is, and isn’t.

We aren’t quite suffering Notification Gate anymore — though Imran Khan is. This isn’t the fallout of the vote of no-confidence, or the renewal of judicial power — though it is both of those things, but not exclusively. A petrol bomb, or an economic Molotov cocktail? Where? How? Gasoline prices, deliberately and mischievously set lower than sustainable by Imran Khan, still haven’t risen. The ordinary Pakistani sees people like your friendly neighbourhood columnist appeal for the removal of the petroleum subsidy and an increase in petrol prices and wonders what moral plague has afflicted so-called educated men and women that argue for higher prices!

Of course, we are living through a delicious and wholly predictable civ-mil crisis, but it is difficult to talk too openly about it, given that such a discussion necessitates analysis of the state of affairs in the civ-civ space (which we can, should and do indulge in voraciously) but also a discussion of what is happening within the confines of the mil-mil space (which we ‘eschew’ — and on which many more powerful people than newspaper columnists and editors should reflect on much more seriously).

Of course, the house is divided into many places. Cousins are fighting each other on WhatsApp groups. Facebook communities once united by things like cars and food and fashion, are being torn apart by too little or too much dedication to national honour and genuine freedom. No one likes slavery, but free people like to be called slaves even less than slaves enjoy being called slaves. The testosterone-fuelled, disinformation-heavy propagandists that initiated Pakistan’s response to fifth-generation warfare (and delivered the 2018 general election) now run Pakistan and its national discourse. And that discourse has come full circle. Boy(s), is it ugly!

Crisis 2022, or The Big Ugly, is a little bit of a lot of things, but not quite one single thing. Imran Khan has attacked any and all individuals and institutions that do not bow down to him. Now, the Insafians and the more radical cultists within that church don’t like the fascist label — but references to dropping atomic bombs and a full-on offensive against the sitting leadership of the military merits some treatment that identifies what it is. ‘Fascism’ feels extreme, unfair and upsetting — but then, perhaps former PM Khan needs to think more deeply about the impact of him mounting his favourite perch (the veritable container) and letting loose like no one was watching.

The problem is: we all are. Watching. We can’t look away. But that problem isn’t Imran Khan’s. Or his followers’. Or even his cultists’. That is a problem for the PML-N and those that are invested in trying to beat Imran Khan at his own game. This is a sad spectacle. Something akin to Kapil Dev or Ian Botham imagining that they look, smell and taste like Imran Khan — on or off the cricket field, between 1978 and 1992. Those two were great cricketers, even giants, in their own right. But Imran Khan? Please.

Watching the PML-N try to match populist wits with Imran Khan or trying to beat him at the crude rhetoric game is as cringe-worthy as Dev or Botham trying to pretend they were Khan on or off the cricket field. PML-N 2022 is a party built on the brick and mortar (and alleged graft) of economic growth in Punjab over the last decade and a half. The Punjab-based achievements of Imran Khan, the man the PML-N is trying to outwit in the trolling department? IK has unearthed gems like Usman Buzdar and the obscene cast of clowns that help run his affairs as party leader of the PTI since he was voted out of office. He found and lost Jahangir Khan Tareen and Aleem Khan in less than a quarter of the time that it took deep state activists enamoured by IK to find and convince these serious election financiers (JKT and Aleem Sb) to underwrite that titanic moment in Pakistani political engineering, the ‘2018 tsunami’.

In short, maybe the PML-N should focus on what it actually knows how to do: build roads, create jobs and expand the middle class. It cannot, should not and will not beat Imran Khan on social media, in WhatsApp groups, or in middle-class minds seized with righteous rage about their place in the world. This ecosystem was built to undermine and reduce the PML-N to bite-sized morsels that a capable new force in politics could devour without indigestion. The 2018 tsunami got everything right except the capable part. Now, Jimmy wanna eat world. That’s not a PML-N problem. That is a sewage problem in the Rawalpindi division. PM Shahbaz Sharif never met a crisis he didn’t want to jump into and solve, but he should put on a mask and walk away from this one.

Crisis 2022 is no laughing matter. But it is also not the calamitous end of days many are painting it to be. It is a one-stop junction for about six or seven separate Pakistani crises to collapse and collide into one another, right about now — but Pakistan’s four fundamentals have not changed and inshaAllah, are not going to change. That is why, those that are hoping for a magical shift to a reform trajectory should take their hopes, wrap their fingers around the throat of this hope, and squeeze the life out of it. Pakistan’s elite daylight-dacoity compact will remain intact — and this Crisis 2022? This too, shall pass.

What are these four magical fundamentals? One, unparalleled geopolitical salience. Two, a large, young, growing and increasingly urban population. Three, being a Muslim majority nation that has defeated violent extremism once and four, a high-functioning global upper-middle class.

Pakistan’s geopolitical salience is valuable, especially if Saudi Arabia, China, the US and other partners know that they will not end up being randomly jackhammered by Pakistan’s rulers every couple of months. Pakistan’s young, growing and hungry population will keep generating higher remittances, increased demand and greater consumption — these GDP boots were made for walking. The status of Pakistan as perhaps the most important Muslim majority nation on the planet (one that is a democracy) is more important — strategically, economically, politically and culturally — than it ever was before. Most importantly, a high functioning, global upper-middle class affords Pakistan avenues into global finance and a technology startup ecosystem that may yet drag Pakistan — late, unkempt, kicking and screaming – into the 21st century.

It is okay to feel despondent at the diminishing sustainability of the fiscal and monetary gaps the country faces. The incoming wave of inflation will batter household incomes — even in DHAs — it is not pretty and will get uglier. The continued humiliation of being ruled by incompetent and callous pinup heroes, family dynasties and incapable political engineers is not about to suddenly evaporate into thin air. But the long-term destiny of Pakistan remains in the safe, praying hands of its ordinary people. The elite daylight-dacoity compact in Pakistan only slows the people down. It cannot immobilise them.

Now go. Go exit that toxic WhatsApp group. Put away Twitter. Turn off the TV channel that you trust. Go. Go hug someone that you respect and love for who they are. Ignore their politics. In fact, go seek out the ones that have a different politics from you, the ones whose politics is deplorable and inexplicable. Go and hug those ones first. Go. Go pick up a book. There are wonders in the multiverse waiting to be discovered and exploited, jobs to be created, new science to be forged, new poetry to be written, and something to be bought and sold. Stop sulking. Go!

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

Originally published in The News