Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan already has the ‘purana’ Pakistan solidly embedded

As Pakistanis welcome Imran Khan after his relative success in the disputed 25 July elections, Lebanese poet-philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s poem comes to mind. He wrote,

“Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,

and farewells him with hooting,

only to welcome another with trumpeting again.”

Khan has promised a ‘Naya Pakistan’ but he is already finding that this will not be an easy task.

To cobble together a majority in parliament, he is having to bargain with politicians from old Pakistan. In doing so, he is already compromising the principles some believe he espouses.

Independent members of the newly elected national assembly are being bought over with inducements as are members of the Punjab provincial assembly. In both houses, Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) is short of a majority. In Punjab, the PTI was not the single largest party but will still form the government.

Khan will also have as his cabinet members people he once called ‘daku’ (robber), including the Musharraf-era Punjab chief minister, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, against whom Khan had initiated a loan write-off complaint.

But compromise is an essential part of politics and Khan is just doing what is essential for success and survival in politics. The problem is that it is also the reason why the rhetoric about ‘Naya Pakistan’ will amount to little as it has on several earlier occasions.

The Pakistani establishment and its apologists want the world to believe that Khan’s triumph is the result of the rise of a younger generation of Pakistanis. These young nationalists have been brought up on propaganda about how corrupt civilian politicians have deprived Pakistan of its rightful place under the sun.

As a celebrity who built a cancer hospital in his mother’s memory, after winning the 1992 Cricket World Cup, Khan was the perfect messenger of Pakistani hyper-nationalism –charismatic and untainted by corruption. Of course, when one has never been in public office, one cannot be accused of misusing public funds.

Before one starts believing in the “Pakistan has fundamentally changed” line currently being bandied about, it is important to remember that the two previously dominant political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) received 19 million votes between them, compared to the PTI’s 16 million votes.

The PTI’s votes included the large clan (Baradari) vote banks brought to the party through the establishment’s pre-election manoeuvrings and pressure. Thus, an element of ‘Purana’ Pakistan had already crept into Khan’s ‘Naya’ Pakistan even before he was forced by an inadequate number of parliamentary seats to start further wheeling and dealing.

Islamist parties, with more than five million votes, got little representation in parliament. But the sheer number of their voters means that they will continue to cast a shadow on Pakistani politics. Having no stake in parliamentary politics, their role from outside could be disruptive unless they are handled deftly.

The election is seen by most observers as less of a mandate and more as just the latest attempt by the Pakistani establishment to reinvent Pakistan’s political wheel. Before betting on the success of the latest plan, it would be worthwhile to examine the history of similar efforts in the past.

Let us start at the beginning. After years of difficulty in constitution-making following independence in 1947, Pakistan finally got a constitution in 1956. General elections were scheduled for the first quarter of 1959. The two leading parties at the time were the Pakistan Muslim League led by Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan and the Awami League led by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy.

The Pakistani establishment disliked both the major party leaders. One (Qayyum) was seen as an unprincipled dispenser of patronage; the other (Suhrawardy) was considered too willing to accommodate India and the United States. The establishment tried to undermine the two parties by helping create the Republican Party by orchestrating defections in parliament and provincial assemblies.

But the Republican Party was deemed too weak to win an election. As a result, elections were put off, martial law imposed in October 1958, and the constitution abrogated. Ten years of direct rule by General Ayub Khan, who promoted himself to Field Marshal, followed. Qayyum and Suhrawardy were both disqualified from politics and Ayub became the leader of a revamped Muslim League.

By the time the country went to polls in 1970, Ayub’s establishment party had been politically decimated. Although Suhrawardy had died, the Awami League lived on and went on to win the election in erstwhile East Pakistan.

Ayub’s successor General Yahya Khan had to use force against Awami League’s Bengali supporters to reinstate the establishment’s writ, leading to East Pakistan forever becoming Bangladesh.

In West Pakistan, Ayub’s rebel cabinet member Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had formed a new party (the PPP), which won convincingly. Ironically, Yahya had brought Qayyum out of the political wilderness to try and reduce Bhutto’s impact as part of the pre-election manoeuvring. Ultimately, Qayyum served as Bhutto’s interior minister when Bhutto took the helm of a truncated Pakistan.

Every observer of Pakistan should know the subsequent story. General Zia toppled Bhutto and executed him; launched the career of Nawaz Sharif and helped create a new Muslim League; Bhutto’s daughter won an election in 1988 despite the establishment’s attempts to block her from power; and Sharif and Bhutto alternated in office in the 1990s until General Musharraf took over in 1999.

Just as Ayub had thought he had finished off Qayyum’s Muslim League and the Awami League, Musharraf worked on shutting down the PPP and Sharif’s PML. Musharraf created his own Muslim League, which did not survive after he was removed from power. The PPP won the first election after Musharraf stepped down as army chief and Sharif won the next.

This time the establishment’s exertions are a little more complex. They expect new explanations for demographic shifts and a younger generations’ disillusionment with politics – both factually correct – to justify a new round of engineering. But their game plan is not different, and I can write with confidence that neither will be its eventual outcome.

Young Pakistanis might not know Pakistan’s history, but they will soon find out that the Naya Pakistan they have been promised is the oldest of old Pakistans. It is managed and controlled by the Pakistan Establishment Inc., which has just brought in their cricket hero as the new PR manager.

Soon, characters from the Zia and Musharraf eras, their siblings or offspring will emerge as key players just as Ayub’s ‘discoveries’ re-emerged under Zia and some Zia’s protégé flourished under Musharraf. Establishment plans are about continuity, not change, and the continuity is ensured through key actors introduced to the political stage.

Take the example of Brigadier Ijaz Shah, formerly of the ISI, who served as Musharraf’s hatchet man and was even named by Benazir Bhutto as one of the persons trying to have her killed. Shah was most likely the covert handler of Jaish-e-Muhammad’s Masood Azhar and Omar Saeed Sheikh when they were arrested in India as terrorists.

Sheikh, lest you forget, is currently in prison after being convicted of murdering Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl. He showed up at Shah’s place to turn himself in while the latter served as home secretary for Punjab under Musharraf. Shah went on to become Musharraf’s director general, Intelligence Bureau, and was the dictator’s main political manager.

He has now been elected to the National Assembly as a PTI nominee. It is unlikely that Shah has joined Imran Khan to change anything fundamental about Pakistan.

Optimism is a good sentiment but it is not as useful in analysis as a realistic knowledge of historic patterns.