Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab province. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood
Shahbaz Sharif, leader of the opposition. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood

On Tuesday the home of the Pakistani leader of the opposition, Shahbaz Sharif, was raided as the National Accountability Bureau wanted to arrest him. For health reasons and the Covid-19 pandemic, he refused to appear in front of the NAB.

This is not the first occasion that the political opposition in Pakistan has been on the receiving end of “accountability” accusations. Nawaz Sharif, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Asif Ali Zardari, Khurdsheed Shah, Maryam Nawaz, and many more have been jailed by one-sided accountability-court trials.

The failure of Prime Minister Imran Khan to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and to revive the economy and the need to cut the provinces’ share of resources in order to increase the defense budget has again prompted his regime to turn non-issues into issues.

Before Shahbaz Sharif’s home was raided, the proceedings against a renowned and brave judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Justice Qazi Faez Isa, in a presidential reference were also resumed. The government’s law minister, Farogh Naseem, resigned from his post in order to represent the government in the presidential reference against Isa.

And then on Wednesday, the chief minister of Sindh province, Syed Murad Ali Shah, was also summoned to appear before the NAB in the so-called fake accounts case. In another development, Shahbaz Sharif has managed to get pre-arrest bail from Lahore High Court until June 17.

Perhaps Shahbaz remains the only hope of rescue for the invisible forces if an in-house change in the National Assembly is needed in the near future as the failure of the “Naya Pakistan” project is making things worse for the powers that be.

So at a time when the world is concentrating on the fight against the pandemic, the Pakistani government and its backers have left the masses at the mercy of fate while trying to apply the strategy of distraction to hide its own failures.

The flow of information and news that should be insignificant keeps the masses from paying heed to the actual things happening around them. Most of the authoritarian and hybrid regimes around the globe use this technique of diverting the people’s attention from their failures or the changes in economy or policies, and Pakistan’s is no different.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by Imran Khan, being the face of this hybrid regime, has been busy propagating the alleged corruption of the mainstream political parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The promises of Khan and his cabinet to bring back imaginary looted money that actually does not exist is only an effort to hide their failures on the foreign, economic, and political fronts.

Meanwhile subservient TV anchors, most of whom have no experience in real journalism or have served as the touts for the invisible forces of the country, promote the politics of distraction.

The result is a society that is completely unaware of the changing world order after Covid-19 and never ask why the military establishment that takes the major chunk of the budget and keeps the political discourse in check through manipulation is above the law and why there is no accountability demand for a former dictator or who abrogated the constitution of the country or for those who are involved in political engineering.

The current political discourse right from Day 1 of the Imran Khan regime was an artificial and rigged one, and any sane person could have seen that the establishment by backing the PTI in the general elections of 2018 and denying PML-N electoral victory was going toward a dead-end street.

The modern era of information technology has made it almost impossible for hybrid regimes to hide their manipulation of the political discourse. So like the previous martial laws of General Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and General Pervez Musharraf, this indirect martial law focused its energy and efforts on only one thing, and that was to keep presenting the opposition parties and democracy as corrupt and weak and keep the masses hallucinated with the slogan of “accountability.”

However, the problem is that sloganeering only works when at least the country’s economy is ticking. During the previous martial laws, one way or the other, US aid for its geopolitical interests and Saudi monarchs’ funding to keep their influence on the Muslim world intact kept Pakistan’s economy ticking.

However, the problem with the current indirect martial law is that the US itself is fighting a losing battle against Covid-19 and has lost interest in Afghanistan, while Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman not only has to save his crown but also needs to revive his own country’s economy after the lost oil-price war against Russia and in the wake of the pandemic.

Under these circumstances, Pakistan’s hybrid regime is in panic, because if proceedings are going according to an establishment-backed government’s wishes, normally the opposition is not provoked.

The political history of the country tells us that during the periods of direct or indirect military rule, it is only during the first six months or year of the regime when sloganeering over “accountability” is used to undermine the opposition and the free press, but never has a stable government threatened members of the opposition or judiciary as is happening now. This sort of thing only happens when things start getting out of control.

Whenever dictatorships or hybrid regimes try to muzzle the opposition or judges like Isa in the middle of their rule, it means they have lost the battle for power. Musharraf’s ouster is an example of a dictator who despite arresting judges and opposition leaders was not able to save himself. So contrary to the beliefs of many pundits, this hybrid regime is not as safe as it has been portrayed.

The core problem is the incompetence of both Imran Khan and the establishment that calls the shots. When a government backed by the invisible forces needs the services of foreign bloggers without any background in proper journalism to malign the opposition parties it is clearly a sign that both the government and its backers are losing the game of nerves.

Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz has become active on Twitter. Though she has not appeared in an interview or a press conference, her gradual return to Twitter after a long absence indicates that the PML-N thinks the time has come to launch her as a counter to the “accountability” witch-hunt by the PTI regime.

On the other hand, the young chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, is clearly defeating the tactics of the PTI government and its backers by putting up a good show in the province of Sindh against the pandemic.

The establishment needs a bigger share of the national budget as the devaluation of the currency and inflation have made it impossible to sustain itself. All the efforts to arrest opposition members and the entry of Farogh Naseem, a well-known ally of the invisible forces, in the proceedings of the case against Justice Isa are distraction policies and eyewash to keep the masses busy with non-issues.

Of course, the establishment will get the increase in its budget one way or another, but the longer the game lingers on the bigger the mess will be.

Even a layman now knows that along with the government, the regime’s backers are also responsible for the failures of governance and other problems the country is facing. The decisive moment is approaching fast. It is not possible in the long run for the invisible forces to linger on with the present setup, especially in the post-Covid world.

The new world order will not focus on conventional wars or the exploitation of oil and other resources from weaker countries in the Middle East or Afghanistan. It will not be a cakewalk to get a ton of aid from the US and the West, and this correspondent has always said that the game was all about the economy, and this is where the government and its backers lost, as they were not competent enough to fix the economy.

As far as the political battle is concerned the establishment lost the battle the day Nawaz Sharif along with his daughter came back to the country to present themselves for arrest, despite knowing that the judicial decision to arrest them was only meant to humiliate them for not surrendering and to bring Imran Khan into power.

The government and its backers can only buy time, but it is clearly written on the wall that the longer this hybrid regime stays the more embarrassment it will create for itself and the country.

Unless a new social contract is devised between the state and its citizens and the constitution and parliament are considered supreme, Pakistan’s journey in blind circles will continue.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.