On 10 April, the people of Pakistan woke up to a new political reality —the hybrid regime under which they were living had collapsed. Despite putting up a fight till the last minute, Imran Khan was no longer the prime minister, having been removed from office through a successful vote of no confidence in Parliament. The vote itself was preceded by high drama and palace intrigues involving major institutions of the country, the full truth of which will surely be uncovered and dissected by historians in the future. But when the vote eventually took place, the Pakistan Democratic Movement and its allies were rightfully buoyant about finally mounting a successful opposition to Imran Khan’s government, having had several false starts over the past four years. Now, Shehbaz Sharif is the Prime Minister and in his hands are the gargantuan tasks of holding together his fragile majority in Parliament, reviving the economy as much as possible ahead of the 2023 election and enforcing his iconic ‘good governance’ across the country.
The notorious neutrality
In the background of these momentous events is the notorious ‘neutrality’ of the establishment which produced these changes. Cynics are quick to remind those celebrating the end of Imran Khan’s rule that Shehbaz Sharif, too, is famous for his soft approach towards the establishment. They argue that in line with a certain historical precedent, Imran Khan was installed in government by the establishment and when he fell out of favour, was ignominiously dumped. Then the establishment turned to a new favourite who happens to be Shehbaz Sharif.
It is difficult to argue with this line of reasoning, mostly because it is not untrue. And in this sense, the structural realities remain the same; the civil-military antagonism has not been diffused, it has simply been masked under a new arrangement. It is also true that the change in government did not take place as a result of a mass movement grounded in popular discontent. Indeed, Imran Khan was removed because one section of the political elite prevailed over the other, aided by the ‘neutrality’ of the establishment.
An eerie equilibrium
I will go further to argue that the relations of power between the political elite and the military establishment have arrived at an equilibrium. Under this equilibrium, the political elites have assented to acting as junior partners under the larger powers of the military elites. Civilian supremacy may be an ideal space but it is quickly set aside for considerations of realpolitik. The reality of the military as a powerful institution is unavoidable and for political actors, it is impossible not to engage with it. Popular support and competence to govern is good, but the consent of the establishment is required to rule.
This is why Nawaz Sharif’s speech in Gujranwala had popular appeal and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s rhetoric appeared dangerous. But it was eventually Shehbaz’s soft approach and Asif Ali Zardari’s backdoor manoeuvrings that ultimately triumphed. This is why, despite knowing that he has fallen out of favour with the powers-that-be, Imran Khan steered clear of publicly dragging the institution into his fight with the Opposition, and instead named an even higher power, the United States as the main conspirator of the regime change in the country. Khan knows that he cannot afford to burn his bridges with the establishment and an anti-American rhetoric has very few domestic consequences.
So, in this sense, the military establishment remains the hegemon in the political arena. Its interventions and interference have become a constitutive as well as a regulative feature in the management of political actors of Pakistan. “General Bajwa has clarified several times that he does not wish for the armed forces to have a role in politics,” the spokesman for the military recently said. “Then why do you ask us to intervene?” The answer is that, based on a certain history, this intervention has become a hegemonic practice, whether or not the institution is “neutral” or “apolitical.”
But this does not mean that an alternative politics is inconceivable. Any order is always the expression of a particular configuration of power relations. And although its edifice appears indestructible, every order is a temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices. Things could always be otherwise and every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities. This is what philosopher Chantal Mouffe calls the ‘constitutive outside’ – a system of arrangement of power in which something is violently excluded. “Any political regime is always a case of ‘the undecidable decided.’ And that is why it cannot exist without a constitutive outside: Other possible solutions have to be repressed,” she writes.
In Pakistan’s case, this constitutive outside is not the civil-military antagonism, but rather the questions of economy, redistribution and the relations of production. This is why, in the din surrounding high politics in Islamabad, voices of the workers, peasants, marginalised ethnicities and women remained woefully absent. And this is why the vote of no confidence took place without being rooted in a mass movement to back the change in government.
A new movement
It is my view that the equilibrium of power relations reached between the political and military elites can only be broken by an external force – from the constitutive outside. This means that only a politics which centres the interests of the working classes, women and minorities — those historically excluded from political processes — can truly renegotiate, or perhaps even overturn, the uneven dynamics of power that persist between the civilians and the establishment. The expression of this politics can already be seen in the presence of disparate social movements that exist across the country and across the political spectrum. More and more people, sickened by the compromised politics of all major political parties, are turning to these movements, which in turn are seeking to further entrench their presence in the masses.
Imran Khan and his supporters may believe that he is ‘dangerous’ out of power. But a far more potent threat to this edifice exists which remains unacknowledged and unrecognised — the power of the people.
Aima Khosa is a Pakistan-based journalist. She tweets @aimamk. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)