The PDM’s road to nowhere
Let’s face facts: there is, never was, and likely never will be any possibility of Prime Minister Imran Khan resigning due to agitation by and pressure from the opposition. Say what you will, he’s not the sort of person to back down without a serious fight and in fact, seems to seek those out even when they’re not really necessary.
There’s no way the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) didn’t know this when they made the demand for his resignation, but that too is par for the course: in politics, as in life, your stated demands and what you realistically think you can achieve are often vastly different things.
The same goes for the en masse resignations that the PDM threatened, with the spectre of a constitutional crisis following that move. Mutual Assured Destruction only works if it is in fact, mutual, and that isn’t the case here. The Pakistan People’s Party, for all its protestations, still has a governmental roof over its head as opposed to the PML-N and JUI-F, who are effectively sleeping on the political sidewalk. Granted, the N-league sees its hawks enjoying dominance under the wing of Maryam Nawaz Sharif, but even then the prospect of ceding the field entirely is a big ask. For the JUI-F, going nuclear is somewhat easier, but even here we have seen some internal differences bubble up, especially in the Balochistan chapter, which resulted in the expulsion of four members.
Even if en masse resignations were given, what would prevent the government from simply holding by-elections on those seats? And in that scenario, would the PDM contest elections under the same ‘selected’ set-up that they say used underhanded means to deny them their fair share? Sure, you could go the legalistic route and talk about quorum and consensus, but what if the government decides not to view it as a crisis at all, but as an opportunity to further cement its hold?
Now we hear that the PDM will hold its reluctant horses until March 26, when it will stage a long march, which may or may not culminate in a sit-in.
The sit-in comes with its own, pre-decided expiry date, and that too is one that allows for some serious face saving. That expiry date is the onset of Ramadan in April: once the holy month arrives, the very real problem of sustaining an open-ended sit-in vanishes.
Now this, I must admit, is a fairly brilliant strategy for a number of reasons: one, its lets them wait two months to see where things are going and adjust accordingly. After all, if a week is a long time in politics then two months is a geological Age of the Earth. If and when the march does begin, there too will be opportunities to evaluate and adjust: if the march fails to attract enough participants, the PDM will get to go back into its consultative huddle while declaring victory and re-evaluating their strategy.
If it does somehow end up being a big show, well then its sit-in time. And here is where the brilliance truly comes in: the sit-in comes with its own, pre-decided expiry date, and that too is one that allows for some serious face saving. That expiry date is the onset of Ramadan in April: once the holy month arrives, the very real problem of sustaining an open-ended sit-in vanishes, and – in that scenario – one can expect a pious declaration that, out of respect for the fasting masses, the sit-in has been called off or postponed after having achieved its objectives. Once again, everyone gets to declare victory and go home.
So if the PM resigning was never an option, and en masse PDM resignations were also unlikely at the best of times, what then was the actual achievable goal of the opposition movement?
I would venture that it was to raise enough pressure on the establishment to (a) gain some concessions and (b) to pull back its support for the PTI government, and get off the near-mythical ‘one page.’
While the first may be a remote possibility, the second was never realistic. What would the establishment gain from doing so, considering there really are no other options.
Thus, the street agitation that the PDM seemed to think could dislodge the government had little chance of doing so because agitations, no matter how sustained or widespread, do not by themselves bring governments down in Pakistan, as history tells us. In Pakistan, governments fall when they are dismissed, and in the current scenario a dismissal is not likely. Pious protestations will not change this reality, much like closing one’s eyes at noon doesn’t mean that night has fallen.
If – and it’s a big if – one wants to take the long-term view, one could argue that what was once spoken of in whispers is now said out loud, and that this is significant. One could theorise that in the long-term these tiny cracks in a hitherto invulnerable edifice could widen to make room for better democracy. But in this moment, in the land of the Now, the road seems to be going nowhere.
– Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News.