POST-2008 politics has followed a few unstated rules based on the twin cities having a tacit 'no-nuclear-first-strike pact' in place. Pindi will not use its nuclear option (coup) first if Islamabad doesn't first use its nuclear option (clipping Pindi's wings). Politicians will rule but Pindi will run the security and foreign policy domains. In return, Pindi will avoid politicking if its core powers aren't threatened.
Zardari tried putting the ISI under civilian control reportedly under US advice. But faced with a furious backlash from the security establishment, he gave up soon and remained meek subsequently. Nawaz too kept his desire for civilian supremacy well under check. Yet, despite civilian meekness, this elite political pact appears to be unravelling after 10 years. There are many hints, perhaps even evidence, that Pindi is becoming restive and, like in the 1990s, wants to covertly manage politics even when its core interests are not threatened.
The targets are seemingly our main parties. Early signs emerged in 2015. Carried away by its success in crushing violence in Karachi, the security establishment perhaps felt it could end sleaze too. Whether the intent was really this or merely bringing to heel politicians, the anti-PPP drive failed. This month, further signs emerged with the failed attempt to arrange a marriage between the MQM-P and PSP.
Is the security establishment becoming restive?
Finally, in the PML-N's case there are more hints than evidence. The PML-N leaders hint at the establishment's hand in Sharif's disqualification. The verdict itself is so weak it encourages speculation whether an elected prime minister would be evicted on such flimsy grounds without establishment support. Sharif faces more solid proof of sleaze in NAB cases. So, the unfair de-seating may soon become moot. But it has instigated political instability. The electoral entrance of fringe religious groups and rumours about mysterious calls being made to PML-N MNAs further muddy the water.
Rumours about minus-three, even minus-four formulae (Altaf, Zardari, Nawaz and Imran) had started appearing in 2015 on social media. As of today, Altaf stands fully eliminated and Nawaz partially so. Imran's fate is in balance in the court and ECP cases. Of course, all this may not be the result of plotting since our politicians carry sufficient skeletons in their closets to convict them. But engineering is not the right strategy for removing the gaps in our politics. So while the proof may not yet be solid enough to strongly accuse Pindi, the hints are strong enough to put out a cautionary note against devising such a strategy given past failures.
Such forays into politics are seen as the result of the follies of politicians. There are two variants to this logic. The first assigns noble aims to Pindi: politicians mess things so much that it has to intervene. But politicians have never messed things so badly. In fact, dictators have messed things more. The second variant is more cynical. It argues that the follies of politicians allow Pindi to grab power in the garb of being saviour. This variant is closer to our situation. But there is nothing inevitable even about it. There are many states where governance is also poor but where there are no deep states itching to step in. In fact, among major states, such temptations afflict establishments now only in a small group which can aptly be called the TEMPT (Thailand, Egypt, Myanmar, Pakistan and Turkey) Club.
Yet, there is strong support for such politicking among many educated people who view politics via only a moral lens. Such a lens is critical but when used alone it creates unrealistic demands for unconditional, full and instant change. Thus, it must be supplemented with a political economy lens which provides better strategies and realistic time frames for political change.
The PML-N and MQM are currently the two parties facing the most flux. There is much that's wrong with them when viewed from a moral lens. But a political economy lens helps in analysing how some of their follies emerge from strong needs within society and not just the evil aims of their leaders. The MQM is being asked to give up its name and ethnic politics based on the view that these serve only the needs of its leaders. But more than jobs and flyovers, the MQM provides a sense of unity and identity to Mohajirs. Defanging its violent arms is proper; forcing it to abandon ethnic politics is not.
Similarly, the PML-N is the embodiment of patronage and dynastic politics which produces sleaze. Controlling sleaze is necessary but only via civilian accountability tools and sound verdicts. But trying to demolish the PML-N instantly can affect Punjab's broader political economy that thrives on patronage.
This all thus requires patient handling rather than crude political engineering by arrogant elements.