NOW that the protests are fizzling out, it’s worth asking what exactly they managed to accomplish. I see two major effects. One is a rising arc of indignant oratory that has stoked the basest passions with no clear direction as to remedial action. The other is to produce delays in strategic decisions like investment and the IMF review. None of these are to be cheered. Unless the Supreme Court throws a curveball, the protests by themselves are unlikely to acquire any new momentum.

It was clear from the outset that if the purpose of the protests is to overthrow the government, or even force the resignation of the prime minister, they would need to move beyond just rallies and speeches towards general strikes and riots that bring economic life to a halt in the major cities of the country for weeks on end at least. None of that happened. All we had was a lot of noise in the system, a lot of huffing and puffing with no road forward.

What we are left with is a large section of the population all riled up with nowhere to go. We’re left with a parliament with no opposition as such, and a government just beginning to regain its composure again after being in the job for 18 months. In short, the protests have been little more than an act of glorified political vandalism disguised as a movement.

It has been almost a quarter century that Pakistan has been lurching from one political crisis to another. In the meantime, the crucial tasks of running the affairs of government have been left to flounder. As a result, we are left with an economic system increasingly incapable of providing a livelihood to the rapidly growing population of our country, and chronically unable to generate the revenue necessary to pay our government’s bills, let alone underwrite reforms or raise productivity.

What we are left with is a large section of the population all riled up with nowhere to go.
A quarter century since our entry into a globalising world, and textiles remains our primary export aside from unskilled labour. The enormous growth in our dependence on imported oil, the erosion in our competitiveness, our stagnant exports, all of these ills can be traced to a political environment characterised by spirited efforts to tear down other people’s governments.

The political economy behind our dysfunction is a sordid tale, and nobody comes out clean in its telling. But there has been one party that has enjoyed a continuous stint in power through all this, the same party that has skilfully played the game of injecting the political space with conflicting vectors and then standing back to watch in glee as they tear each other down. This is the legacy of military rule, which never really reconciled itself to handing over power to the civilians in any democratic transition. From Junejo to the present, there has been a constant search for a formula to retain control of the levers of executive power through proxies.

In a sense, military rule never really ended in this country. Certainly not with the death of Gen Zia. The closest it came to being eclipsed was through the consolidation of the democratic process following the clean and bloodless ouster of Musharraf. This was going to be a long process.

In every country that has undergone a transition from military to democratic rule, the remnants of dictatorship have manoeuvred to retain their privileged access to the state and its resources. In Pakistan, this process has had its most fundamental underpinnings in a desire to retain the privileged access to the country’s fiscal and foreign exchange resources, a privilege that the military grew accustomed to during the years of its rule. And this effort, to retain this privileged access even as executive power was being handed over, has animated much of our politics and shaped our economic reforms over the decade.

Following the Zia era, during the transition, control over executive power was retained through the offices of Ghulam Ishaq Khan and his network, men made famous by the high positions they held in the civil services. The governor State Bank, deputy chairman Planning Commission, secretary finance, advisor to the prime minister on finance, chairman Wapda, and so on. A small network circulated through these positions, and closely studying their behaviour shows they let their hand be guided by GIK almost completely.

It took many years for the political parties to break the hold of this network and cultivate their own loyalists in the bureaucracy. The high point in that process was probably the epic fight between Nawaz Sharif and GIK in 1993. With their leader gone in the aftermath of that affair, the rest of the network scattered.

In the second transition, the military found few takers to carry its standard in the post-election period following 2008. A few proxies were available within the media space, some in the bureaucracy but not as an organised interest like GIK’s network. But most importantly, none of the main political parties in the assembly created through those elections were willing to play ball with the boot, which is what ensured that assembly’s survival more than any extensions ever did. There was no equivalent of the IJI from 2008 till 2013.

To anybody who remembers this history, it’s a powerful sense of déjà vu to see Imran Khan play the same style of politics that the IJI did from 1989 onwards, but with a few differences. There is no effort to mobilise a vote of no confidence, for instance, and no effort to build a coalition around his demands. But the virulent effort to tear down a civilian government, to hold its decision making hostage, to denounce its mandate and its credentials and its loyalty, all hearken back to that earlier time. This style of politics has served to keep our dysfunctions entrenched over the years.

The writer is a member of staff.