Ali Baba and Forty Thieves is an Arabian fable about the exploits of a woodcutter and some forty-odd characters. It’s a story of lust, exploitation and opportunism. It ends happily for Ali Baba but not for the forty thieves some of whom end up losing their lives.
Fables are history’s tryst with bitter truths. They meander through human proclivity for worldly pleasures and bring out a morality that ought to guide human endeavours. They are a warning to men blinded by avarice. In the end, very few end up with a “and they lived happily ever after”.
Flip this over in Pakistan’s context. Imran Khan is perhaps Pakistan’s Ali Baba trying to relentlessly bring some semblance of morality to a system hostage to some 400 (and not 40) odd thieves.
The word “thieves” is a metaphor for our political class who number in hundreds, perhaps even thousands. It is indeed confrontational for a lawyer like myself to call out all our politicians and lump them in this category. But there is a certain “guilt by association” blemish they enjoy that can’t be wished away.
Senate elections is where the tale of lust, greed and opportunism has come back full circle.
Consider, what we have witnessed recently in the Islamic Republic.
“Recent” ignominious events
Imran Khan faced an ignominious defeat when his candidate of choice, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, got pummeled in the Senate election by Yusuf Raza Gilani – a candidate fielded by PDM with the inglorious tag of, lo and behold, stealing a necklace gifted to the State of Pakistan by the Turkish President Erdogan.
Imran’s team vociferously challenged the Senate election defeat based on the Supreme Court observation that secret balloting is not an absolute rule. But despite the kerfuffle that ensued between PTI and the opposition, Imran and his team couldn’t manage a contrary result. The system firmly stood its ground. The status quo messaged Imran that patterns of the past would entrench themselves, come what may. Not surprisingly, the PDM lustily cheered Imran’s loss. His politics had hit its lowest. Those were indeed dark times.
In More “Recent” days
The malicious glint in PDM leaders’ eyes the day after the event was a spectacle to behold. They were all set to take PTI to the cleaners. But this is when Imran – despite all advice to the contrary to scale back further ambition – decided to test out a ‘moral victory.’ How did he do this? By going for a vote of confidence in a system with a penchant for spectacle. Guided by its machinations but foreseeing a pending defeat, the PDM decided to boycott Imran’s vote of confidence. But for Imran, gaming the thieves lurking on the horizon, was the real deal. After all, what was more thrilling than surviving Russian Roulette with a ‘Made in Pakistan’ bullet that could fire at will? This was no mean feat. Imran eventually took the plunge. And, bravo, he survived. This was typical of him: taking the battle to the enemy instead of waiting for it to come to him.
The “in between”
Between the ignominious Senate defeat and the vote of confidence, Imran’s patience and resolve were surely stretched to the limit. PDM’s covertly hatched schemes weren’t going away anywhere. After all, novices like Imran don’t stand a chance against seasoned players who have a deep sense of how the rigged political system plays out. This explains Imran’s cries about those “7 MNAs” who had voted against Hafeez Sheikh during the Senate elections. But, as expected, those proclamations fell on deaf ears.
Interestingly, those 7 odd MNAs weren’t going anywhere. They only needed to be gamed further. Sadiq Sanjrani and Mirza Muhammad Afridi’s victory as the Chairman and deputy Chairman, respectively, have come like a bolt from the blue for both Imran and the opposition.
Perhaps after the rug got pulled from underneath his feet, Imran realized that his survival depended on how well he (and his anointed ones) could play the system. Let’s be clear: one man – or a group of men despite all the good intentions – can never change a system like this that is rotten to the core. But by holding the fort against the PDM through patience and some skill, Imran the political teenager may very well have – belatedly, no less – come of age and finally transitioned into Imran the adult.
Read more: Fixing Pakistan’s broken democratic system
The 400 thieves conundrum
The predatory Pakistani politics which thrive on malevolent deep-rooted alliances cannot be undone overnight. The 400 (and not 40) odd thieves that Imran faces – in his own ranks and outside – are here to stay. His best bet is to use the system’s own rules to chip away at their vulnerabilities and defeat them at their game.
The Senate election results – painful to watch and endure as they are for the entire nation – are a microcosm of our society. We as a nation have relied, far too often, on characters with no moral scruples. To change this predicament, however, we, or Imran for that matter, can’t simply press an “on” or “off” button that will catapult us into some glorious future. The deep-rooted malaise, the cancer which runs deep through our body politic, requires a savvy Machiavellian treatment. This isn’t a game for the faint-hearted. It requires deft application of tact and purpose. It requires an Ali Baba who can cajole the 400 odd thieves and put them to good use. This will eventually require a pied piper to make thieves fall off a cliff. And this won’t be an easy feat in a system rigged to the very last man. Imran has his job cut out for him.
So can Imran game Pakistan’s political system?
We will never know. Predicting an outcome in Pakistan’s fast-shifting political terrain is folly at best and dangerous business at worst. All is fair game in this tug of war. Imran may win. Equally, Imran may lose. But he will most certainly go down fighting if the Senate elections outcome is an indication of his intent. And finding a way to game the 400 odd thieves will be the ultimate test of Imran’s will and tact.
Let’s hope this Ali Baba and the 40 thieves has the story’s ending: the thieves end up getting bludgeoned. Interesting times await Pakistan. The country is firmly hinged on whether Ali Baba can game this system. This is Pakistan’s best and, alas, last hope.
Hassan Aslam Shad is a practicing international lawyer based out of the Middle East and a graduate of Harvard Law School, U.S.A. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org