Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, like his eventual successor Imran Khan, was blamed for all the nation's problems. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood

On June 30, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran made a fiery speech on the opposition-less floor of the parliament. In a 44-minute speech, he touched upon many important subjects. He lambasted the opposition and vowed once again to go after the mafias and cartels to bring the country out of long-prevailing crises.

Yet the highlight of his speech was the allusions to the “minus-one” formula. 

Saga of ‘minus-one’ and Imran Khan

The term “minus-one” has always been popular in Pakistan’s politics. It means targeting the prime minister alone for the nation’s woes and thereby making his office unstable and shaky.

It is a stroke of political genius, at the disposal of opposition parties and establishment, to keep the PM on his toes. It is a pressure tactic to keep the powers of the PM under check. This is how any prime minister in Pakistan can be dislodged easily with all the blame on his shoulders. In his speech, Khan referred to this sinister plan that, according to him, is at play.

This handy tool of political engineering saves many from taking the blame for their failures. It has been a tradition in the power corridors of Pakistan that saves the face of many a stakeholder of the system. It saves the opposition, the secondary tiers of the ruling party, and the other behind-the-curtain players from all blame. But it does not serve Pakistan’s national interests.

In his speech, Khan rubbished the talk of his removal, but his optimism nonetheless sounded hollow. He also stated that the opposition “don’t know that even if minus one happens, the others will not spare them.” Without naming the “others,” he triggered a debate about the dilemmas as well as tragedies that have been eating into the political system of the country.

True, his two-year tenure is replete with slips of the tongue, a downward-spiraling economy, issues related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), controversial statements, and the failure to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak. But would it be fair on any account to hold him alone responsible? Are his failures not the collective failures of the government? Do his inefficiencies block the developmental trajectory of the provinces?

Minus-one makes PM a scapegoat

The game of power has never been kind to anyone who dared to play it. It is ruthless. It is the game of thrones that never brought any peace to those who play it.

Pakistan’s political history is tumultuous. The combination of sporadic experiments of democracy with prolonged periods of military rule made it almost impossible for the country to settle with set political traditions. Expediencies, political maneuvering, and personality-fixated approaches are a few of the festering wounds in the political bodies of Pakistan that never let the ailing systems heal.

In such a dark and shady milieu, a “minus-one formula” saves many from taking the blame for their failures. It saves the opposition from all the blame that it should not hesitate to take.

Pakistan’s negative financial outlook, the rising debt, and grave situation of the pandemic were all challenges that had to be tackled collectively. For long, the opposition played the role of a bystander only. This tradition does not serve the national interests of Pakistan.

In a fragile economy like Pakistan’s where “strategic assets” and “geopolitical location” are considered the only benefits, the collective leadership should come to the rescue of the country and its institutions. But the political parties have always been into political engineering.

The other stakeholders of the system that are rumored to be the most active part of election-rigging and political maneuvering also get away with foul play. International news agencies have pointed, time and again, to the increasing role of such factors in Imran Khan’s government. It is also one of the reasons that the opposition parties and a large chunk of Khan’s followers have become disgruntled. Again, it is only collective effort that will put the country on the road of democracy.  

Saving democracy serves national interests

Not so long ago, the three-times-elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif fell prey to this political machination. And thereby hangs a tale: the tale of making the prime minister responsible for all the faults and foul play of the other stakeholders.

At that time, the chanted slogan of Sharif’s party was “respect the people’s vote.” It actually implied that civilian supremacy comes above everything else. Party members made fiery speeches on the floor of the National Assembly in favor of getting respect to the prime minister’s office.

Back then, it looked as if the people’s representatives were truly fighting for the cause of democracy. They seemed to care for a “principles-based” politics, and not just personality-fixated bickering. That was just a smokescreen.

Now, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is singing the same tune, the old one that resulted in Sharif’s outcry of “Why was I ousted?” If Imran Khan were ousted, would that make him pay for all his faults and inefficacies? The decades-old story would be repeated. Khan would play the victim card and emerge as a “hero” in the next election.

Operationalizing “minus-one” is effective for the short term only but, in the long run, it will have severe consequences for the process of democracy.

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Ghazanfar Ali Garewal

Ghazanfar Ali Garewal is a lecturer in the international relations department of the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad and coordinator of the department. He holds an MS degree in international cooperation from Yonsei University, Seoul, an MSc in international relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and an MA in English from NUML.