Imran Khan’s drive against Mian Nawaz Sharif for alleged money laundering was to have kicked off on Friday with a rally in Raiwind, just outside the personal residence of the Prime Minister. Instead, it became him and his party pursuing a purely domestic issue at a time when the country was at least in the midst of a face-off with India, if not in the middle of a series of escalating events, which required a display of national unity rather than political point-scoring.
This had become even more urgent after India launched what it called a ‘surgical strike’ the day before the rally. The timing meant that Mian Nawaz’s two main political concerns had come together. First was the need to keep the country at peace, which is code for keeping the economy growing. However, even though elected on the same platform of growth and being pro-business, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had challenged this by mounting a rung in the escalation ladder by the claim of a surgical strike. Then the next day came the rally, which represented the second of the challenges to the Nawaz government, and the primary domestic challenge.
The biggest gain by the PTI was that it was seen as doing something. That is more than can be said about the hitherto main opposition, the PPP. The PPP was not part of the rally, nor did it have a rival event at which to rally the party faithful. It did not even stand firmly with the government. All it seems to have done is concede ground to the PTI as the main party of opposition. This policy of ‘masterly inactivity’ does not seem to have served it well, and unlike the 2013 election, where it split the anti-PML-N vote, it might find itself totally replaced. This would also lead to the erosion of its strong position in Sindh, where it is not seen by its supporters as a purely Sindhi party, but one which can win a majority at the Centre. Such a majority requires at least a strong showing in Punjab. It must be noted that the PPP has formed the central government thrice since 1988, and never formed the Punjab government, though in 1993, it formed part of a coalition led by the PML-J. Ever since the 2013 election, there have been signs that the PTI was replacing the PPP, but it now seems that the process may have reached a new peak.
One factor is that the PTI has shifted the debate from election rigging to corruption. Of course, Imran links the two, but there is a gamble by the PTI, that corruption is an issue that bothers people. The PTI promises clean government. However, as its own experience in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa should show, talk is cheap, as are thus accusations of corruption. If the PTI accuses the Nawaz government of corruption, the PML-N has been busy accusing the PTI KPK provincial government of corruption.
These accusations are on certain uncomfortable truths: the first is that politicians in power are ipso facto supposed to be corrupt. This is because ordinary people recognise that the dilemma of elections is the need to fund them. Either one must be independently wealthy, or one must receive campaign contributions. It should be remembered that modern electoral politics seems unable to solve that issue yet, and elections may mean the ability of people to express themselves, but it also means the ability of candidates to raise money which in turn means being beholden to those who give the money that is spent. These donors tend to be dominated by special interests. The entire democratic system is corrupt, even if judged by its own standards. The objections to the moneyed men who surround Imran would not be so strenuous if he did not stand for squeaky-clean honesty.
This does not mean that people are tolerant of dishonesty. However, it does mean that people are not as concerned with dishonesty, and perhaps more forgiving of it, than Imran thinks. Perhaps the problem lies in the perception that politics is a dirty business, and that anyone who engages in it, is going to find himself obliged to make money illegally. One symptom of this is that the PML-N has not found it difficult to retort all of Imran’s accusations upon his head. If the Panama Leaks have raised questions about Mian Nawaz Sharif’s children’s association with certain flats in Mayfair, similar questions arise about Imran’s ownership of a London flat through an offshore company. Then there is the question of Aleem Khan, said to be one of Imran Khan’s financiers. The PML-N raises the question of how Aleem is ‘cleansed’ of his role as one of the Punjab Ministers in the Pervez Elahi cabinet which held office from 2003 to 2008.
That brings the nation back to the question of what are the PTI’s links to the military? It leads to the picture of an overt supporter of the military, opposing the sitting government at the very time it needed support the most. Is the military preparing another Bhutto for a situation where the worst comes to the worst? It is often forgotten that in the run-up to the 1971 elections, the Communist Party of Pakistan had condemned Bhutto as the ‘spare-wheel’ of the military. Is Imran preparing to be the Pétain of a Vichy régime in a post-defeat Pakistan? His dilemma is shown by the PTI’s flipflops. After the rally, it sent representatives to the PM’s APC. Then boycotted the joint session of Parliament two days later.
It should be remembered that if Pakistan loses the next war with India, the Nawaz government will not survive. The catch is that the military leadership also will not. It should also be remembered that any victory in a nuclear war will be Pyrrhic. There might be victory, but will it be worth it if the so-called winner is also a nuclear wasteland?
At the moment, there is an escalatory ladder (up which the Modi government seems to be doing all the climbing so far), but once nukes are used on the battlefield, how far will we be from counterstrikes? At the moment, tactical nukes seems to be the preferred Pakistani weapon, but once India gives a corresponding response against any developing Pakistani armoured formation. If on either side, windblown fallout causes a belief that a city has been attacked? Or if planners decide to degrade the other’s war potential? It should not be forgotten that once the decision to go nuclear has been taken, the politicians on both sides will find that military reasons will take over the targeting process.
There is an unfortunate mentality at work somewhere, which imagines that any of the present realities will be available for transit into a post-nuclear war world. Pakistan and India probably cannot destroy each other, but they can certainly bomb each other back into the Stone Age. Imran Khan and the PTI, at least those that survive, not just the attack but the often-fatal fallout, should understand that there will be no corruption if there is no country.
It might seem a Faustian bargain, not to have a country at all if one can abolish corruption, or to have corruption so long as one has a country to live in, but there it is, and this is the unpalatable choice that the Raiwind rally represented. That may not be the message Imran wanted to send.