Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

Arc of Pakistan’s history has now been rewritten towards civilian supremacy

M Bilal Lakhani May 26, 2024


The precarious political situation in Pakistan reminds me of a famous children’s nursery rhyme. It goes something like this: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. It feels like all the political, economic and constitutional faultiness of Pakistan are converging towards a decision point. And everyone is sitting on the edge of that wall, waiting for a fall.

At the centre of these faultiness is a simple and profound question: who rules Pakistan? The answer to that simple question is dramatic and complicated. Elections are typically an opportunity for the ruled to choose their rulers. In Pakistan, where black is white and white is black, the February 8th elections did not produce a change in rulers but it did change everything else.

Who was the actual winner of the 2024 Pakistani elections? The answer to this question will be debated for generations in our history books. What shouldn’t be debated though is: who was the biggest loser. That honour goes to Humpty Dumpty.

On Feb 8th, PTI’s voters may not have been able to force a change in their rulers immediately but they have rewritten the social contract between the rulers and the ruled in Pakistan forever. In the process, they have finally bent the arc of Pakistan’s history definitively towards civilian supremacy and read out a namaz-e-janaza for the politics of the electable and the controllable.

Traditionally, electables in Pakistan are used to winning elections regardless of which party’s symbol they’re running on and which way the political winds are blowing. Moreover, once they win elections, electables are a convenient lever for the real power brokers in the country to gently direct the people’s mandate in whatever direction they feel is best for the country.

The 2024 elections turned these traditional expectations on their head. Many of the electables lost to tier 2 and 3 PTI candidates with virtually no name recognition.

There’s only one man who can take the credit or blame for this: Imran Khan. Over the last 18 months, he has electrified and educated the masses on the power of their vote to dilute the strength of unelected forces, which exert undue influence within the corridors of power. He builds on similar messaging delivered by other political giants before him. The difference is that Khan has been able to mobilise a larger number of people, including Gen Z, urban elite and traditionally pro-establishment constituencies on his message. More importantly, Khan and his supporters have shown extraordinary courage in the face of brutal state repression.

On a side note, remember when they said he wouldn’t last more than three days in jail because of withdrawal from drugs or when they disqualified his marriage? That’s what they threw at him. Everything and the kitchen sink. And this is what backfired for the electables. For the first time, the Pakistani people voted for something beyond their bread and butter issues – the thana katcheri patronage system that electables master. This time the Pakistani people voted for their basic rights, including the right to vote. And the electables chose to stand on the wrong side of history.

In the longer arc of history, some irreversible gains have already been made by the Pakistani people this year. First, the Pakistani people are entirely capable of producing peaceful revolutions through the ballot box. An extraordinary feat when you consider how many other Muslim nations break out into civil war and violence when renegotiating social contracts between the ruled and the rulers. Second, the new ‘electable’ candidate is the one who stands with the people of Pakistan. No backdoor deals or guarantees can withstand the sheer force of the Pakistani voter. And finally, that the Pakistani voter isn’t dumb or unaware – even if you snatch their bat and shut off their phone. This was a vote for the right of their vote to count.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2024.

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