Article by: Umer Farooq
Since October 17, 2020 opposition alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) have held six public rallies in big urban centers of all the four provinces, attracting hundreds of thousands of people to the sites of these political gatherings, where jam-packed assemblies could have acted as potential “Super Spreaders” of deadly COVID-19 virus. COVID-19 epidemic being more of an urban phenomenon as crowds, gatherings, and assemblies are primarily a regular feature of city life. Before the start of the second wave of this pandemic the health officials and experts were warning the general public to avoid crowds, the advice was offered to the government to close all educational institutions, which detectably were acting as “Super Spreaders” of the disease in big urban centers and lastly the government was advised to reach out to the opposition political parties in order to avert an agitation that could be more deadly from a health perspective, instead of acting as a source of the fear of a full-blown political crisis with the potential to dislodge the government.
Parallel to the opposition’s preparation for rallies in a big city, the PTI government launched propaganda campaigns to bring home the point that these rallies could act as “Super Spreaders” of the COVID-19, which continued in the background until the rallies were held in Gujranwala, Karachi, Multan, Quetta, Peshawar, and Lahore. The government entreaties fell on deaf ears—the opposition parties organized rallies as if there was no pandemic hitting Pakistani society and as if everything was normal.
This government media campaign continued till the rally in any particular city was held, as after that, there was no follow-up from the government side. Precisely speaking the government didn’t inform the public as to what specific impacts these rallies caused in each city. For instance, before the Peshawar rally was held on November 22, 2020, the government exerted full force of its propaganda machinery to portray the impending rally as a “Super Spreader” of COVID-19. However, once the rally was held the government focus shifted elsewhere and they didn’t inform the public about the impact this rally caused on the COVID-19 situation in the city.
Perhaps the government was more interested in targeting the audience, which in this case was the masses of Pesha- war city before the rallies were held in order to persuade them not to attend the rally. Subsequently, the government felt no responsibility to inform the public about the impact of the rally on a pandemic situation in the city. The government didn’t feel the responsibility to keep track of the situation in each city after the rallies were held. This scribe has made his best efforts to collect some data from government quarters about the exact impact these rallies had on the COVID-19 situation in each city where the opposition-held rallies. But to no avail.
Opposition on its part acted completely recklessly in its efforts to dislodge the PTI government before upcoming elections 2021.
Situation of conflicts among Pakistan’s elite is a norm rather than aberration—persistently we see a pattern in our history, where different segments of Pakistani elite could be seen settling scores among themselves or engaged in a cutthroat competition. The present political situation is again a repetition of the same pattern in our politics—a segment of Pakistani political elite could be seen making an attempt to dislodge other members of the elite who form other segments of political and military elite.
There was a very thin veneer hiding the pathological antagonism that the former Chief Justice Saqib Nisar displayed towards Nawaz Sharif, who, in turn, was quite open in his harsh criticism of the judiciary and the judges. In those days Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa voiced his clear support of the judiciary in the face of a frontal attack on the Supreme Court by Nawaz Sharif. General Bajwa’s off the record comments in support of the judiciary were widely reported in the national press. Now, Nawaz Sharif has launched another agitation campaign of which General Bajwa and his close associates are the prime targets.
In 2017 it was clear that elites of Lahore and Gujranwala divisions are fighting it out among themselves—Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, and Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif were from Lahore, and COAS, General Bajwa was from Gujranwala division. In this intra-elite competition, one segment was badly humiliated, ousted, and forced into exile through the naked use of coercive machinery of the state by the leading and dominant group. There is another distinction between these rival groups—the humiliated elite group’s political power is based on popularity among the masses, whereas the elite groups that ousted the first group derive their power from bureaucratic and legal mechanisms of the state.
A cursory look at stable political systems across the globe will bring forward the point that elites in these societies agree on some basic rules of the game. Political conflicts among national elites can be highly destabilizing for the system and the society and can prevent national development and progress from taking place for a prolonged period of time.
Elite of Lahore and Gujranwala divisions fighting it out among themselves—Chief Justice and Prime Minister were from Lahore and COAS from Gujranwala division. The present scenario clearly indicates that the elite conflict that could bring instability to the heart of Pakistan has three key players—Prime Minister Imran Khan and his close associates drawn from the middle and upper-middle classes of urban Pakistan, General Bajwa and his close associates and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his associated group comprising of the same crony capitalists and members of urban middle and upper-middle classes.
The display of this traditional and self-obsessed thinking at the time when the country is facing, perhaps the deadliest pandemic in modern human history could be described as criminal. But then the government is no less reckless in its efforts to create a permanent gulf between political forces by insisting on selective accountability that is getting nowhere. This permanent gulf has led to competition between the country’s elite groups, thus weakening the national resolve to tackle a national emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ousted and humiliated group now is striking at the very roots of stability, which provides a basis to the continued grip of ruling elite groups on the power structure. Ousted and humiliated elite groups are clearly threatening to destabilize (or at least mobilize) the region of Central Punjab and its immediate periphery—the home of the Pakistani military establishment. If they succeed in destabilizing Central Punjab then we may perhaps see a massive re-adjustment or maybe a reshuffle in the power structure of the country. Pakistani security planners have a long-cherished dream of keeping central Punjab—the home of Pakistani establishment and industrial hub as well as breadbasket—stable and politically calm. Any prolonged agitation could shatter this dream.
Elite conflicts usually never lead to anti-status quo solutions—at least this is what Pakistan’s political history tells us. There are in the final analysis a number of publicly visible and hidden mechanisms of interactions among the elites and possible go-betweens who can always bring about compromise solutions among the warring elites. Pakistan’s recent history in the post-Zia period is replete with numerous conflicts among the elites that turned nasty but nevertheless, influential people and groups brought about a compromised resolution of the conflicts with everybody getting a face-saving. The only person, who would not be satisfied with a pro-status quo resolution of this conflict, is none other than former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself. A compromise solution that offers nothing to Nawaz Sharif in terms of judicial relief from criminal conviction would leave him high and dry. Therefore, this crisis or conflict will test Nawaz Sharif’s ability and political endurance to sustain a popular upheaval for a prolonged period of time that can destabilize rival members of the elite. A persistent pattern of conflicts among the elite groups is a clear indication that there exists a vast chasm between rival elite groups on the question of ideology and management of the state resources. There is no consensus on the core issues facing the nation. The voices complaining about one institution controlling the state’s coercive machinery and using it against its opponents whimsically are growing in the society. There are no agreed-upon rules of the game, causing repeated conflicts and power struggles. In such a situation we can easily predict that this is not the last elite conflict that we are witnessing. There are many more to come. In the meantime, the dreams of national cohesion and national development can wait for an indefinite period