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Understanding Pakistan by-elections and Imran Khan win in three TV serials

Alpha Bravo Charlie, Ehde Wafa, and Sinfe Ahan provided an insight into the army’s visualisation of politics. Khan is the one who replaces the 'evil' leader.

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The 17 July by-elections in Pakistan seem to have woken people up to the reality that there is still some game left in Imran Khan’s politics. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, won 15 out of 20 seats in Punjab. It goes against the popular narrative that the political game in the province belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Given Khan’s unpopularity during the last days of his government and falling out with Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, most wrote off the PTI. Many journalists thought that Pakistan was returning to the PML(N) and the Pakistan People’s Party rule. These results caution against arriving at quick conclusions.

Although Imran Khan’s return to power is not a foregone conclusion, there are several explanations for what just happened in Punjab. First and foremost, the unpopularity caused due to tough policy choices taken by the Shehbaz Sharif government such as increasing taxes and removing subsidies. These decisions necessitated securing an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at a time when the Ukraine war increased oil and gas prices and resulted in worsening economic conditions across the world. For the common man, it’s the PML(N) and partners that became the face of hardship.

Second, the coalition partners failed to convince people that the suffering was mainly due to PTI’s policies, and they were unable to counter Khan’s conspiracy narrative with alternate ideas. Since coming to power in April, the PML(N) was also unable to use Maryam Nawaz effectively to attract youth or female voters. There is no denying that the PTI’s story that both the PPP and the PML(N) joined hands with the US is a popular one and attracted the younger voter and the fence-sitters. Though flawed, the argument sold well.

Third, and perhaps one of the most important factors, is the continued support for Imran Khan from the Pakistan Army, if not the Army Chief. The fact that several retired officers, including the former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Zaheer-ul-Islam, Lt. General (retd) Tariq Khan, and many other recognisable faces from the military fraternity, continue to cheer for Khan. The election results, in fact, echo tensions within the army among competing interest groups and lobbies. While there is no indication that officers are ready to throw General Bajwa under the bus, his inability to maintain discipline with powerful means of punishment and reward is noticeable. Despite depriving five retired officers of pensions and other perks and privileges, he has failed to silence many others that support Imran Khan.

Calming raw nerves

It would be a mistake to term this victory as the weakening of the army. If anything, the General Headquarters (GHQ) has benefitted the most. On the one hand, the PML(N) had no option but to say that there was no external interference and on the other hand, Imran Khan, made a loud noise about the need for the military to support him. The takeaway for the common people is that the army didn’t intervene and allowed the process to take its course, resulting in Khan’s ‘genuine’ victory. This is a major image improvement for the army.

The PTI victory will certainly go a long way in calming down raw nerves within the army. These elections may contribute toward empowering electoral politics, but I do not necessarily see it as a qualitative improvement in politics, especially given that civilian institutions, including political party structures, remain weak. To me, the election results are a by-product of the military’s imagination of replacing what is perceived as ‘the evil politician’ with a good party and politician. All politicians who try to replace the army are automatically worth rejection. To those in the military supporting Khan, he may have failed in delivering, but he, as a military personnel I spoke with said, ‘at least says the right things’.

Let’s not forget that Imran Khan popularly shares the passion for eradicating corruption, corrupt politicians, and countering manipulative foreign powers with many in the army. Khan and his army supporters combined is the Walter Mitty – a fictional character from James Thurber’s novels – of Pakistan, who, despite his personal weakness and inabilities, dreams of rescuing people.

The army’s political philosophy, though bereft of contradictions, is simply linear. The politician is feudal, represents the interests of the landowning class, is dynastic and anti-modern. Contrast that with the modern, patriotic, self-sacrificing, and clean military institution. Since the first Army Chief and dictator, General Ayub Khan, the army has struggled with producing the right kind of politician. But during the process, there is a continuous reminder of the impact a bad politician has on society.

Also read: Imran Khan’s having a coming-of-age moment. And it’s shaking up the Sharifs

The army in TV serials

For me, watching the three Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR)-produced television serials Alpha Bravo Charlie, Ehde Wafa, and Sinfe Ahan was instructive. These dramas are not just about the military’s image building but also provide an insight into the army’s visualisation of politics and society. They’re about the military mind, its likes and dislikes.

Launched in 1998, much before the ISPR started talking about 5th generation warfare, Alpha Bravo, Charlie was a popular serial that brought army life into ordinary Pakistani households. The story, revolving around the lives of three young officers Faraz, Kashif and Gulsher, built the concept of what kind of society the GHQ wanted. The landowning class is gently ridiculed for its display of wealth like buying an expensive Mercedes-Benz for the son who is about to start his career in the army. The finer prizes in life, such as getting the ‘best woman’, martyrdom or physical sacrifice, are left for those that represent the middle and upper-middle class.

The narration of the army’s socio-political ideals becomes sharper with Ehde Wafa — ‘promise of loyalty’. It came as a sequel to Alpha Bravo, Charlie. Its story follows the lives of four friends studying at the famous cadet college, Lawrence College, and who get expelled from it for an incident of eve teasing — we learn how good and evil are imagined. Not hard to notice the obsession with describing feudal-landowning politicians as the epitome of evil, which is how the character of Malik Shahzain is laid out. He is spoilt, aggressive, dishonest and a manipulator who will cross any line to fulfil his desire. From proposing to his friend’s beloved to engineering a fake attack on himself to winning his seat in elections, the flaw is in his background.

Malik Shahzain’s character is also a useful tool to amplify the goodness of the other three friends, all of whom belong to the middle class. Although the military’s echelons are part of the exploitative ruling elite, there is an effort to present the military as the representative of the middle class that seeks progress and security of the State. The star of the serial is the character called Saad. He is handsome, well-behaved, polite, a team player, urban, and the winner of the ‘sword of honor’ like his father. Saad’s father, who is Lt. Faraz from the previous serial, is now a major general. The household is entirely modern with no traces of the feudal-landowning background. The most telling dialogue between Saad and General Faraz is when the former reminds the latter of how his father had gifted him a Mercedes-Benz before joining the army. The General chuckles and responds: “But your grandfather was a landlord, and I am just a professional middle-class man who can only afford to organise dinner for your friends.” But the quality of the army household in the serial is much better than the feudal household of Malik Shahzain. Even the women and their lifestyle and the treatment of animals are better.

Also read: Imran Khan’s PTI discusses forming government after thumping Punjab by-polls win

Imran Khan parallels army’s imagination

The above-mentioned characters did not grow on trees. By 2019, the army and the ISPR were already in the third year of General Bajwa’s tenure and way past the six years of General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, who played a major role in adjusting the class dynamics in the army. There are sufficient glimpses of this class tension within the army as we see the life at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) being played out. Watching the two serials, we can clearly see how the ideas of society and ideal political norms have evolved in the army.

The growth of Imran Khan as an idea also evolved during these years. His ouster from power is resisted by many in the army because he symbolises an alternative to the feudal-dynastic politics of the other parties. Although Khan is as much part of the elite as the generals that created him, he symbolises the socio-political experiment that the army has been working on for years. We can see more glimpses of it in yet another serial, the 2021 production Sinfe Ahan  – ‘women of steel’. It tells the story of six women who join the army and are under training at the PMA, Kakul. Like these young cadets, the army would accept the abandonment of all life patterns even by the politicians or be able to change the nature of their sociopolitical structures and customs. This we can see happening in the play with the character of a Baluch sardar. The tribal chief must surrender to the PMA-backed power of a young girl from his area despite her being a poor man’s daughter.

From the first serial to the last on my list, the milestones in the development of the socio-political imagination of the army cannot go unnoticed. To reiterate, Imran Khan won because he is part of the idea that the army has wanted to succeed for years. Comprehending this may then help understand why the military fraternity has refused to treat Khan’s sacking as ordinarily as the removal of two prime ministers before him.

Imran Khan may be their deep emotional need.

Ayesha Siddiqa is senior fellow at Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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