In Imran Khan’s words we have arrived at a “defining moment”. We must decide, who or what is the state — people or the “representative” and powerful elite? If matters cannot be settled to mutual satisfaction, there is a real possibility that issues may get settled with more blood and martyrs on the street.
Notwithstanding the security concerns, for the moment, GHQ has deftly avoided the question by insisting that the “state institutions” should be protected and that “the people” and “the government” should meaningfully negotiate matter/s.
On the streets, the people are still protesting. It is widely accepted by political parties that the election was rigged with the alleged connivance of the highest state institutions, hence, as per the protestors, the legitimacy and legality of the parliament is questionable. Nearly 100 people were shot and 16 killed in a government action in Lahore.
As per the law, families of victims have tried to have their FIRs registered, only to be blocked by the government itself. Both sets of victims have rightly concluded, that for them, there are no fundamental rights and there is no rule of law in the country. As a last resort, they have turned to protest. But the government in its infinite wisdom continues to question both the constitutionality of the protests and their demands.
The circle is thus complete: state institutions including parliament and their “elite” occupants on one side protecting the status quo and “the masses” on the other demanding change. That is the basis of the emerging political narrative.
Like the Arab Spring, it is a narrative that has the same grievances and language, the same mix of “zulm” and the “zalim”, it has got its martyrs and blood, it has got its exploiters and oppressors evidenced by dynasties capturing political opportunities and state resources, and using the state apparatus to maintain their hold. There are the references to Hosni Mubarak, Netanyahu and Gaza, and Modi! It is a narrative that demands “insaf”, social justice for all, as promised by the Constitution. In this narrative, state institutions including parliament have no justification for their existence beyond promoting public welfare and so, as the logic flows, there is no point propping up a system that does not work. The only option is reform.
In the normal course of the democratic cycle, governments that do not perform do not get re-elected at the next round. But the issue here is not just performance, it is more of fundamentals. It is about a breakdown in the rules of governance and law.
The fact that parliamentarians cannot relate with the victims and are little moved by the grievances highlights all that wrong with this democracy. Blinded by their personal stakes in the status quo as argued by both the PAT and the PTI, parliamentarians and the high state officials are not appreciating the shifts that are taking place on the street, which are eroding their representative and moral authority. Their status as parliamentarians is also being de-legitimised.
The status quo forces need to understand that there is a qualitative shift in the debate, from formalism to a demand for a democracy that is real and substantive, that is responsive to the “masses”. It is a “moral agenda” that stretches back to the likes of Air Marshall Asghar Khan, which Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan are now taking forward.
The PAT and PTI have managed to bring together a wide and impressive range of actors to support their narrative, which brings to the fore Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan, the constitutional promise for a “New Jerusalem”, highlighting the weak rule of law and corruption that is weakening the state, and the lack of accountability. It is a narrative protesting the widespread denial of rights and theft of public resources and opportunities. Protests have already succeeded to popularise the demand for more constitutionalism and democracy; for more inclusive and impartial governance; and highlighted the demand for rule of law and rights. These are gains already made that need to be consolidated by the PAT and PTI.
Whilst the PAT workers are largely former PML-N and PPPP voters, the PTI has managed to popularise politics and their narrative amongst the middle classes and the youth. These are considerable challenges for the status quo to hold their discontents and capture new voters. The PTI has also begun to attract and mainstream the more marginalised voters such as those of Balochistan, which indicates that it is moving to become a national party. These are successes that need to be maintained by the PTI.
By being isolated by the other political parties, the PTI has distinguished itself from them as the only party that stands for the “moral agenda” that genuinely speaks for the masses. It is a success that the PTI needs to grow.
The protests have shown that these issues are important and urgent. Health and education need to be prioritised ahead of the metro — which has come to symbolise the elite’s lack of concern for the poor, and that authoritarianism will not be tolerated as part of Pakistan’s democracy. There is already change, which all political parties will be registering — that the winds of the Arab Spring are hitting our shores, that the ruling elite is facing unprecedented scrutiny in its political management that can quickly slip out of their hands.
The protests demonstrate that the need for reform is urgent. We are, arguably, approaching, if not already, at a tipping point that threatens political upheaval. The political elite needs to carefully assess the public anger and aspirations. By denial or defending the indefensible, the government is unwilling to take responsibility for what is happening on the ground, thereby threatening its own survival.
With their numbers in parliament and widespread influence, the political parties and the government may be able to hold the day but at what cost? The PML-N is damaged, their democratic credentials have been exposed; parliamentarians are exposed for their self-serving politics and benefits, their representative and moral character is in question. The partisanship in high state institutions, judiciary and media has also been exposed. Considerable damage has been done that needs to be repaired.
Either the status quo can transform itself to be more humble and responsive or it will break under the burden of its own hubris. It is now just only a matter of time. A thought once thought, cannot be un-thought — the new narrative and the emerging order is now seeded backed by an article of our faith that a good effort can never be lost!