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While controversy rages against Speaker National Assembly (NA) Asad Qaiser’s delaying the calling of the NA session on the no-confidence vote beyond the constitutionally laid down 14-day period, some good news may be counted in the Islamabad High Court’s forbidding political rallies in the Red Zone of the federal capital.

Fears had been voiced, including by the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, that government and opposition rallies at the same venue (D-Chowk) or even in close proximity could lead to a physical clash. That at least seems to have been prevented (at least for now). The Islamabad authorities, according to the latest reports, are examining alternative rally sites for both protagonists.

Meanwhile, the Speaker NA’s action has stirred a veritable storm of protest by the opposition, including, but not confined to, calls for charging him with violating the Constitution under Article 6 (treason). The Speaker pleaded force majeure because of the OIC conference but not many people are buying this. The perception is widespread that the Speaker is once again acting as a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) loyalist by trying to delay the no-confidence vote as long as possible. This may still not be enough to save what increasingly looks like the sinking ship of the PTI government, given not only allies’ seeking greener pastures, but even ‘dissident’ PTI MNAs declaring their intention to vote against their government.

Given the leaking support of the government, it makes little or no sense for it to be intending to approach the Supreme Court on two points: does disqualification mean for a lifetime, and can dissidents cast their vote on a no-confidence motion? If the government had any idea of constitutional provisions and parliamentary conventions, they would have realised that this is a futile exercise per se, and the judicial outcome in any case will probably arrive too late to help their cause. Asad Umar has attempted to put a moral gloss on the PTI’s motives by arguing this petition would end ‘sale and purchase’ (of MNAs) and end the influence of ‘easy money’ in politics. Judging by our past experience and track record, this can only politely be dismissed as a fond hope.

Despite Article 63(A) of the Constitution empowering party leaders to unseat MNAs voting against the party whip, the present crisis and its inner dynamic reassert the depth and longevity of our culture of slippery politics. In genuine parliamentary democracies, MNAs cannot under any circumstances be prevented from voting according to their preferences (‘consciences’ seems inappropriate in our case). However, in such democracies, the moral pressure on dissidents to then resign, leave their previous party and seek election as independents or from the platform of another party is undeniable.

In our flawed democracy, such high moral ground is wanting. The basic reason is the consolidation of patronage politics since the 1980s (General Ziaul Haq). ‘Electables’ are the staple of such a politics. Enjoying electoral support in their constituencies because of their pledge, if elected, to transmit patronage downwards to their voters, they become the most sought after commodity by all parties. The effect of a house full of such seasonal migratory birds is that when a ruling party runs into trouble or is approaching the end of its term, these opportunist MNAs seek better deals wherever available either by pressurising their own parties for better terms and privileges, or, if this fails, negotiating with rival parties with an eye on coming elections.

Prime Minister Imran Khan appears not to understand this tragic flaw in our political dynamic. We have heard him declare repeatedly during his three and a half years in office that he will not be blackmailed by his own members of parliament, even if he loses power. That now seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ‘rules’ of our political culture are clear: either you play the game and keep your members (and thereby their voters) satisfied or lose out. That is the Hobson’s choice that permeates the evolved political culture of our benighted country.

The even more important factor in the political survival equation of any government is the role of the establishment. Imran Khan’s ascent to office through the 2018 general elections has been dogged since day one with charges of rigging. The fact that the combined opposition was unable to budge the powers that be on this issue reflects the establishment’s past backing for its favoured dispensation. That relationship broke down last year, starting with the fiasco of the appointment of a new ISI chief and ending (by now) with open speculations about Imran Khan’s desire to replace the present Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Bajwa, who hitherto was publicly perceived as standing solidly behind Imran Khan. It is no accident then, that the TV news channels and print media are abuzz with talk of the newfound ‘neutrality’ of the establishment. The PTI’s consistent losses in by-elections and the half completed local bodies polls indicate the establishment’s having abandoned the ‘same page’ and instead adopted a ‘hands off’ policy. This implies the PTI has been left to its own devices. Given the penchant of the PTI government to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot, the implications seem quite clear.

Unfortunately, Imran Khan and the PTI have rendered the political narrative so toxic and abusive in their unrelenting attacks on the entire opposition that there is little or no chance of any negotiated modus vivendi between the two sides. One says this without any intent to whitewash the opposition’s character. White-collar crime, summed up neatly in the PTI narrative as ‘corruption’, is hard to root out in developed societies let alone in our flawed structures. The whole National Accountability Bureau (NAB) drive against the opposition leadership has ended up as a damp squib. In the absence of a credible outcome, the PTI’s anti-corruption narrative has lost lustre by now, even if urban legend believes there is no smoke without a fire.

The chances are, despite the PTI’s attempts to delay the inevitable, Imran Khan and the PTI’s days in office seem numbered. Whether he can make good his promise to be even more ‘dangerous’ if removed, which implies or translates as: if I am going down, I will take the whole ship (system) down with me. Brave fighting words as these may be, everything depends on the establishment’s view whether going back to the old opposition parties is a better choice than wholesale breakdown.

Last but not least, although the opposition has enjoyed a surfeit of riches in the form of the failures of the PTI government to lambast it with, with resonance amongst the people, they have yet to announce any policies that would differ from Imran Khan’s. That may mean more of the same: economic dependence on the outside, with attempts to repair ties with the US-led west and strengthen those with China, while wrestling with the fallout of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, a victory that threatens not only our isolation, but arguably enhanced terrorism. Welcome to the new-old.

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Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

Rashed Rahman

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