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Three myths about Pakistani politics

Three myths have been paraded as facts in Pakistan politics. These pertain to the three largest political parties: the PML-N, the PPP and the PTI.
The oldest of the three myths is that the PPP is an anti-establishment party. The party, as the myth goes, has always been in the forefront of the people’s struggle against despotism. The PPP’s birth in the late 1960s presented a formidable challenge to Pakistan’s first military rulers, who in a couple of years was forced to step down. A decade later, the party found itself pitted against another dictator.
Twenty years down the road, history repeated itself as the PPP made Pakistan’s fourth despot call it quits. Since politics is red in tooth and claw, the party has paid an exorbitant price for its ‘relentless’ fight against dictators in the form of assassinations – ‘judicial’ or otherwise – of its founder and his daughter.
On every occasion, the myth continues, the exit of a dictator brought the PPP into power. But the cards were always stacked against the party. Its government was given the sack thrice. Though the party completed its fourth tenure, its path was strewn with enormous obstacles. Such has been the saga of the party’s ‘indomitable’ resistance – the myth would have us believe.
Like other political myths, the one about the PPP is, at best, a half truth. While the party has had a head-to-head with the powers that be, it has played up to as well as rubbed shoulders with them from time to time. In 1988, Benazir Bhutto struck a deal with the establishment before being appointed as prime minister. As part of the pact, she followed the outgoing military regime’s foreign, security and economic policies – one wonders what was left. In 1993, she made a common cause with the then president GhulamIshaq Khan, who was an archetype establishmentarian, in forcing a popularly-elected Nawaz Sharif to step aside. The 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance was a classic example of political logrolling and realpolitik.
The PPP, in the wake of Nawaz Sharif’s exit, has counseled the deposed prime minister to take his disqualification for life on his chin, whereas to date it has not reconciled itself to the judicial decisions that despoiled its interests. The manner in which the PPP is sucking up to the institutions these days hardly squares with its contention of being a party that bucks the system.
Another myth casts the PTI as an anti-status quo party. Such a claim can be calibrated in two ways. First, does the party present a political programme – or at least has a style of politicking – which is off the beaten track? Second, does it espouse an economic doctrine, which is substantially different from the one prevailing? In case of the PTI, the answer to both these questions is in the negative. The PTI has set the same political goal – grab power by all means – and is using the same means to achieve it as other parties: by counting upon the men who matter to enter into the corridors of power, demonising its rivals, and practising the politics of the electable.
The PTI is as much wedded to the neo-liberal economic policies as the other major parties. While the party leadership has carved out a niche for itself in trolling its opponents lock, stock, and barrel, it seldom – if ever – rounds on the unbridled capitalism or the heartless market forces. Like his political rivals, Imran Khan has not been blind to the power of money to do wonders. He is a mega beneficiary of the present system and his party leans on the support of the people who have high stakes in preserving it. In fact, the PTI has turned on its head the very notion of change. For the party, the word ‘change’ is synonymous with a shift in loyalties.
The third myth sees the PML-N as a dab hand at governance, particularly economic management, compared with a ‘corrupt and incompetent’ PPP and a ‘novice’ PTI. The PML-N’s ‘hard task-master’ governance style is often contrasted with the PPP’s laissez-a-faire approach. Shahbaz Sharif, the second in command in the PML-N, has the image of a no-nonsense, goal-oriented boss, who has the knack of keeping his subordinates’ nose to the grindstone.
Be that as it may, most of the key economic indicators have been on the downswing during the PML-N’s five-year tenure. When the party took office, the current account and trade deficits were $2.49 billion (1.1 percent of the GDP) and $15.35 billion (8.9 percent of the GDP), respectively; the fiscal deficit was Rs1.88 trillion; and domestic and external public debt stood at Rs9.52 trillion and $51.24 billion, respectively. Total debt and liabilities accounted for 73 percent of the GDP.
At the end of March 2018, domestic debt and external debt had gone up to Rs16.07 trillion and $73 billion, respectively. Meanwhile, total debt and liabilities accounted for 82 percent of the GDP. Likewise, at the end of April 2018, the current account and trade deficits were $14 billion (5.3 percent of the GDP) and $30 billion (11 percent of the GDP), respectively. The fiscal deficit had reached Rs1.65 trillion at the end of March 2018.
Inflation remained low during the PML-N regime. But that was due to the relatively low international oil prices and managed exchange rate stability. Economic growth took an upturn. But instead of being based on strong fundamentals, it rested on debt accumulation. Not surprisingly, the PML-N, which began its tenure with an International Monetary Fund (IMF) credit agreement, is also leaving the economy in a situation, where the start of another IMF programme is on the horizon. T S Eliot’s line, ‘In my beginning is my end’ is very much applicable to the PML-N’s economic management.
Political myths are not exclusive to Pakistan. Every society has its bagful of myths, which articulate the people’s ideal self-image. We are predominantly a malleable nation. The myth of an anti-establishment party, like a typical Sultan Rahi movie, provides a cathartic outlet to the people’s pent-up desire for taking on the mighty. But real life is remarkably different from the reel life. Here the seemingly brave protagonist ends up reconciling with his more potent antagonist. If you can’t beat them, join them.
By the same token, our youth are endowed with tremendous energy and enthusiasm to uproot the ‘corrupt’, ‘unjust’, and ‘rotten-to-the-core’ system. But as time goes by, they begin to realise that the system is a hard nut to crack. The only way that they can survive – and thrive if they are ambitious enough – is to become part of the same system. That is what our greatest symbol of revolutionary change, Imran Khan, has also gone through. He started his political career with the promises of weeding out the system. But having spent a few years in the political wilderness, he realised that discretion was the better part of valour.
The PML-N leadership is akin to the restless top functionary of a popular Bollywood political thriller, who, instead of shaking up the system, moves about the state, administering justice to the wronged ones and punishes the evil doers – all on the spot.