Has the PDM government successfully reversed roles in a game that Imran Khan played better than cricket for eight years? In children’s versions of the game of Chor-Sipahi (Cops and Robbers), players take turns to become thieves and cops. In the national version, however, there are some permanent thieves and permanent cops as well.
Permanent cops are part of the nation’s power elite serving the state – what our former British masters used to call the steel frame of the state. Permanent thieves are the section of the elite that claims its share in state power and resources by winning public following and their votes.
Like everything else in our ‘nazriati riasat’, this game cannot be played without a solid ‘nazria’ and a robust ‘philosophy’. In simpler terms, the game requires a narrative, and this narrative was perfected three generations ago by Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Everyone else has merely tried to reinvent the wheel that was shaped perfectly on the first instance on the anvil of the handsome general. Long before NAB, there was PRODA.
The most intriguing part of the game, what you can call the game within this game, involves permanent thieves playing temporary cops against each other, at times with the ferocity of the Hunger Games. At times, they may do it for the pleasure of the cop and at times for their own amusement.
It is the game within the game that can perplex an outsider. What would make a group of hares think that they are a pack of hounds on a divine mission to annihilate all other hares from the jungle? Is it merely the lure of power which is easier to gain by playing this game or is it some innocent primordial wish lurking in the hearts of hares for turning into hounds? Perhaps, this question can be answered better through the best-known game in game theory – the prisoner’s dilemma – which is used as a standard example of why two completely rational individuals might not cooperate. (Kindly Google for details)
Perhaps, some blame can be ascribed to the court of clowns and sycophants that switches off the plug connecting Pakistani politicians to reality as soon as they assume power. From the summit of the K-2, they can only see clouds. The gorge from which they have scaled up the mountains and which beacons them back soon becomes a fading memory from another incarnation. Charismatic politicians who found large political parties try to peg their tents on the place where they were meant only to put up a flag.
All three leaders who founded large parties in Pakistan – ZA Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan – tried to enforce the single party hegemony by attempting to annihilate their political enemies. Bhutto’s daughter and Nawaz Sharif learnt their lessons in exile only after the real cop, Pervez Musharraf, had cannibalized their parties and their political future appeared in serious jeopardy. The Charter of Democracy, signed in 2006, was the first serious attempt in Pakistan to rewrite the game, both at the level of law and at the level of norms.
As thieves refused to play the game, the cop had to set an honorary cop among them. Thus, the age of Imran Khan, the most honest politician in the whole universe, began – almost two years before the advent of the age of Trump in the US who made America great again. Imran Khan was a fox in the chicken coup from August 2014 to April 2022. Now that the hour of reckoning has arrived, Imran Khan might realize that his shiny plume and glorious comb does not make him a member of a different species.
But memories of the days of glory are hard to forgo. From 2014 to 2018, Imran Khan laid a deadly siege against an elected government even though his party had merely 35 seats in the assembly of 342, while the ruling party had 133.
Through his populist narratives and well facilitated political mobilization, Imran Khan set up gallows where his political opponents were hanged by public executioners of the accountability system. What a splendid spectacle it was and what a magnificent cast! “Here was a Saqib Nisar, when comes such another?”
In government, Imran Khan might have been less powerful than Ziaul Haq, but he certainly proved more effective than the Mard-e-Momin. It appeared that Imran Khan’s populism and system’s authoritarianism had given us a form of hybridity that could obliterate everything else. The new dispensation, it appeared, was here to stay for a long time to come. If Nawaz Sharif was about to become Amirul Momineen before he was thrown out by Musharraf, Imran Khan was on the verge of becoming a Turkish sultan before his opponents ousted him and the system looked the other way.
Once in opposition, Imran Khan wanted to keep the job of the cop. Without the backing of the system, he planned to play the game on his own, with the help of his army of tigers. His ‘khilaris’ were rearmed with a new narrative. His enemies, already corrupt, were now agents of a foreign power and symbolised the archetypical religious evil as well. They were ‘baatil’ and represented ‘Munkirat’. On the one hand, his narrative would force institutions to support him against the government, because it was divine command that no one could stay neutral in Imran Khan’s cosmic struggle to regain power. If the constitution did not matter in the hybrid system, how could it matter in the battle between the good and evil? Karbala is not the place to consult the constitution.
The nation – ie: his followers – were tasked with the divine duty to throw his opponents out of the political arena through public harassment and humiliation. The attack on members of Pakistan’s federal cabinet in the Masjid-e-Nabvi in Madina came as an ominous sign of what was in store for his political opponents. Rather than condemning an event that amounted to a historic disrespect to the sacred mosque, Imran Khan tried to justify it by declaring that “criminals” would face similar treatment wherever they went. In almost every speech, he incited violence against his political opponents and encouraged their harassment.
His opponents, now in government, have only three possible choices. The first option is to forgive and forget and reach out to the PTI to agree on democratic norms. This is exactly what they tried to do in the first instance. This option, however, requires a radical reset to Imran Khan’s style of politics and is not acceptable to him at this stage.
The second option is to let Imran Khan continue with the game. However, this path leads to their complete political destruction and perhaps their chances of living normal lives in the country as well. During eight years of his era, Imran Khan has demonstrated what he can do to them.
The third option is to play the game of chor-sipahi by reversing roles, forcing Imran Khan to be the thief this time. It appears that the PML-N led government has picked the third option and we may expect a lot of commotion in the coop in the months to come.
The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.