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Containerism versus reform

Mosharraf Zaidi

It isn’t just the political parties in opposition that are in disarray. The first-time entry of the PTI to the corridors of power in Islamabad has also caused a great disruption in how political analysis in Pakistan is conducted. Political discourse is itself in a state of disarray. For the first time in decades, we are struggling to give form to the substance of political observation and critique.
For decades, the taxonomies have been constant. There is the great civil-military divide. There is the ‘problem’ of ethnic and linguistic diversity: too little where it matters, too much for those of little imagination, and even less intellect, that prefer a monochromatic Pakistan in their own image. There is the angle of faux religiosity in politics: too much, too extreme, once too manufactured a piety through taxpayer funds, now too organic a purity to disinfect. Of course, September 11 changed the tune, and December 16, 2014 changed the volume – but faux religiosity has been a trustworthy topic of dissection.
And then there was Daughter of the East Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and the Lion of Punjab, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. The so-called two-party system of the country ensured an authentic political duality in our analytical culture. After the 2006 Charter of Democracy, and especially after the 2007 movement for the restoration of the judiciary, that dual political carriageway began to gradually merge into a single lane. Four years later, the 18th Amendment helped metal that once dirt road. At some level, at least to the critical naked eye looking at all this from the outside, mainstream political analysis came to accept any and all behaviour from either the PPP or the PML-N, because however bad it may have been, it enjoyed electoral legitimacy. “At least it wasn’t martial law”.
The intellectual culture that has manufactured the PTI has to be understood in that very specific context. Of course, the civil-military divide has played a role in its emergence and growth, and indeed in areas far beyond the legitimate domain of that divide. But the core intellectual foundation of the mainstreaming of the PTI has some relatively simple assertions that drive it:
1) No honest Pakistani can tolerate the incompetence on display since 2008.
2) This incompetence cannot be out of ignorance. It must be the product of corruption.
3) The only solution therefore is an incorruptible leader (Imran Khan).
4) Anyone that does not reject corruption (and embrace Khan) is himself a beneficiary of corruption.
5) All criticism of Khan, and any possible failure by Khan is now, and forever, proof of the depth and breadth of the tentacles of corruption.
Democracy and federalism puritans have no response to this logic. But that isn’t because it doesn’t exist. It is because they are operating in a different universe from the Khanistas. The Khanistas, at the ballot box, on the evening talk shows, and in the military, are allergic to all aspects of Old Pakistan, including the kind of democratic process that keeps manufacturing family dynasties and high malnutrition rates. The democracy and federalism puritans are wedded to process, without care or consideration for the outcomes. They either don’t see or wilfully ignore the fact that their clinging to process makes them seem like they are wedded to the Bhutto-Zardaris or the Sharifs, rather than the process.
None of this is particularly new, except that the PTI is now in power, and over one hundred days after taking oath, is increasingly responsible for the state of the country.
Political analysis is stuck in binaries, reacting to every stimulus provided to it by a target rich environment. The poor prime minister is stuck with an infinite loop of errors. When Razak Dawood finally learns how to lock it down, and Fawad Chaudhry stops serving up half volleys, then SMQ makes a comeback with a ridiculous taunt to the Indians, and Sheikh Rasheed pops up with an explicit undermining of the PM.
This kind of noise is hard to ignore. But the damage from focusing on it is two-fold. The first is that it serves no corrective function. The schoolboy errors that PTI cabinet members make will not dissuade the average PTI voter, and certainly not the rabid Khanista, from supporting PM Khan. So highlighting these errors is essentially an indulgence with no clear outcome, other than stating the obvious: our political class is incapable of sustained sophistication. The second is that it perpetuates what we may call, for lack of a better term, “containterism”, and it does so at the expense of governance. As long as the PTI and its rank and file feel that they are getting attacked, they will keep counter-attacking. And what makes their counter-attack potent (to them) is that they are defending the honour of their leader (he is never wrong) and the purity of their agenda (to cleanse Pakistan of corruption). Name-calling is not a compromise for this rank and file. It is a virtue. To not be angry and to exercise restraint is to respond to the bouncers of the evil doers by ducking. But tigers don’t duck. They roar. And so it goes. On and on and on.
The wider impact of all this is potent, and it undermines the PTI’s own agenda of improved governance, never mind the chance to actually serve the wider national interest.
Among the easiest areas of impact for the PTI nationally, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Punjab is education. The reasons for this are simple enough. Education is a core issue within PM Khan’s agenda of serving the most vulnerable – so getting his attention and support should not be a problem. Education is among the areas of expertise that the PTI claims to have built up during the 2013-2018 period – so finding capable and trusted bureaucrats and elected leaders in education should not be difficult at all. And perhaps most importantly, given the degree to which provinces (and particularly Punjab and KP) had invested in education in the past five years, the runway to initiate and launch new initiatives should have been a short one.
Sadly, the PTI government whether in Islamabad, or Peshawar, or Quetta, or Lahore has neither the time, nor the inclination to build on the historic political effort of their leader to deliver the country’s power corridors to a party corps that has never had such power before. Many will hold the PM to account for failing to establish a coherent and believable narrative on issues that matter to him, like education. But at least some of the responsibility also falls on the enabling network that helped make him PM. In education, this enabling network includes Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood, KP Education Minister Ziaullah Bangash, Punjab Education Minister Murad Raas, former KP education minister Atif Khan, and the current KP finance minister – who helped lead education reform in Punjab from 2013 to 2017 – Taimur Khan. PTI supporters must ask this network of leaders the following questions:
Why is Punjab on its third education secretary in less than three months? What was wrong with Imran Sikander? Why is the KP education secretary being changed at a faster rate than diapers on a baby? The past twelve months have seen five different secretaries.

Why? Why was the most recent education secretary in KP changed whilst the KP education minister was out of the country? Why are the same bureaucrats that were supposedly unable to do anything from 2013 to 2018 continuing to run the federal education ministry now?

What is the financing plan for education – especially middle and high schools for girls – in the newly normalised tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa?

If the PM is going to have any chance of delivering on an ambitious agenda to serve this country’s neediest and most vulnerable, he needs ministers and elected officials to carry their weight. On the vital question of education, the question of actual reform is far, far away. Right now, the more pertinent question is how the existing system can be protected from the negligence and incompetence on display in the last one hundred days. The PTI, and Pakistan, can do better.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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