My name is Khan and other matters…


The protest movement begun by Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf against the government is gaining traction. Under pressure, the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in his Aug. 12 speech, talked about forming a 3-member judicial commission to investigate allegations of rigging.

Khan refused to bite. He doesn’t want any post-dated checks and certainly not for a bank that he feels is going insolvent. Sharif’s offer is also untenable constitutionally and can only be made to stick through an amendment. The problem with the amendment, among other things, is that at this point Khan has no intention of taking the issues of rigging and electoral reforms to parliament, a forum which he has already rejected. He wants Sharif to resign and announce a date for the next elections, with the interim setup being run by a caretaker government of technocrats.

In a nutshell, Khan is bent on a showdown and thinks he has the government by the short and curly. What is his calculation? In fact, what options do various actors, including the army, have?

Let’s do a quick whiteboard exercise.

Historically, as eminent historian Dr Ilhan Niaz pointed out to me, a violent movement in Central and Northern Punjab has invariably pulled down a government. We don’t know if Khan actually knows this, but even if he doesn’t, he is unwittingly embarked on a march that could, if it became violent, bring the house down.
That said, does Khan want to act like Samson?

I doubt it. There’s no point in his huffing and puffing if it doesn’t get him into the PM’s House and, by extension, bring his party to power.

So, what is he counting on?

This question is important because by rejecting Sharif’s offer, the insufficiency of it notwithstanding, and by taking the issue outside the recognized fora, he is signaling the near-breakdown of the political system’s capacity to work out issues through negotiation and compromise. For what is politics if not the aggregation of interests, often divergent? But since he is part of the system – in fact his party rules one of the federating units – this failure belongs as much to him as to other political actors.

Generally, if and when the system shows such a fundamental weakness, we see a vacuum. And vacuums are always dangerous. Showdowns also have another problem. While Khan has dug in, so has Sharif. Technically, Sharif also has the power of the executive behind him. If the situation does get violent, the system having failed to aggregate, the vacuum will be filled by a third actor: the army.

Does Khan think that the script will remain in his control?

It seems so. He continues to iterate that his march is meant to strengthen, not weaken the system. The problem, however, is that the street doesn’t work on the basis of rational choice and cannot be fully controlled, especially if the entire strategy is grounded in ratcheting up pressure through street agitation.

If Khan knows that there is a third arbitrator and he is signaling as much to that actor as to the sitting government, then he seems to be calculating that the third actor will not allow the government to use its coercive apparatus beyond a certain point. In this he is probably right. But to think that the third actor will necessarily take his side and also retain the sanctity of the system is to put what I’d describe as a PTI premium on optimism. At a minimum this assumes, and arbitrarily, that the third actor will play either on one or the other side and has no interests of its own.

The whiteboard says that the two sides, in order to get the third actor to mediate between them, would need to make a compromise which subsumes multiple gives and takes. In other words, if Khan is using his street power to get Sharif to undertake the necessary reforms, then he can rely on third-actor arbitration. But if he is looking for ‘all’, he might end up with ‘nothing’, as would Sharif. To have that outcome in the avowed pursuit of strengthening the system would be farcical because tragedy doesn’t repeat itself so many times.

Sharif for his part is also in a bind. He didn’t take Khan seriously and now that Khan is holding his feet to the fire, he is feeling the rising heat. Sharif has pulled in the army and has even allowed himself to be boxed in, conceding space to the army. In return he wants the army to get Khan off his back. He is also prepared to concede Khan some of his demands. There’s a 33-member parliamentary committee assigned to look into the issue of electoral reforms. The PTI has three members in it. But there’s a slight problem: Khan is not interested in that committee any more. While he wants electoral reforms, he wants, first and foremost, to address the issue of ‘rigging’.

Ideally, Sharif would have liked the army to signal to Khan to cancel his march. That is not to be, at least not until the march actually goes underway. Khan has invested his entire political capital in this march and there is no way he will call it off at this stage, and definitely not without getting some, if not all, of his demands met.
Sharif’s calculation seems to be that the army doesn’t want the cost and the burden of any new elections. The troops are stressed, fatigued and involved in an ongoing operation. Also, that the army isn’t particularly enamored of Khan’s emotional politics and his penchant for taking absolute positions. Since he (Sharif) has already given them (army) the space they wanted, the army has no reason to see him go and let the system drift into uncharted waters. In sum, the army is as wary of any political upheaval as Sharif. In this calculation, the GHQ prefers the known to the unknown and, in many ways, the uncertain.

Within the rational choice framework, Sharif’s calculation seems closer to reality than Khan’s. While Sharif is prepared to make compromises, Khan, so far, has given no indication that he does.

And what is the military thinking? It is prepping for the arbitration role the political players have thrust on it. It wants internal and economic stability. It has successfully managed to cut Sharif down to size. It has learnt lessons from the Musharraf period – i.e., stay away from the driver’s seat while safeguarding core interests. There’s no point in being in the direct line of fire. That said, because the political players are signaling to the army, they neither can nor should expect the army to play by their rules. The rules of the game will be the army’s. To that extent, Khan’s rhetoric that his capers are meant to strengthen the system is as hollow as a drum.

Yet, armies like to make contingency plans. What if Khan remains adamant and the street boils over? That would be the joker in the pack and for that reason one cannot fully analyze the outcome. The best-case scenario for Khan in that case would be General Raheel Sharif doing a General Kakar. The worst-case, General Sharif doing a General Musharraf. The third scenario would be a ‘national government’ which is neither here nor there and will solve nothing for any of the actors, including the army.

[NB: this article was penned before the events on Aug 13. However, the broad thrust of the argument still obtains.]

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