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Que Sara Sara: Pakistan, Two Months After 09 May

  D. Suba Chandran

Since independence, Pakistan has witnessed violence led by political, religious and radical actors on multiple issues, depending on who is protesting and their endgame. However, the 09 May violence that Pakistan witnessed has been interpreted as a paradigm shift with grave implications for the country.
Two months later, what has been the fallout of the 09 May violence? Has it changed the political landscape of Pakistan? Has it altered the power equation between the main actors? Or, has the violence only pushed Pakistan back into what it was and what it would be?
The Empire Strikes Back
The primary message of 09 May violence is the reassertion of the Establishment's dominance in Pakistani politics and a clear message to political figures that a red line has been crossed.
Over the past year, following the loss of his majority in Parliament, Imran Khan's PTI has been on the offensive, accusing the Establishment and former army chief Gen Bajwa. Despite strong rebuttals from the ISPR, Imran Khan has continued to attack the Establishment. Sadly, Imran Khan has failed to heed the messages conveyed in the ISPR's rebuttals.
The Establishment has faced violence from a number of sources, including the radical group turned political party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). However, the events of May were considered as posing an existential threat. This is because previous violent incidents involving political parties and radical groups had targeted the government, while the March violence specifically targeted the Establishment.
On 09 May, the Establishment was already unhappy with Imran Khan and some of its leaders. The violence on that day was used as an excuse to strangulate the PTI and make an example of Imran Khan. The primary message is clear, and the target is Imran Khan: If we can make you, we can break you as well.
The second message is directed towards the other PTI leaders who aligned with Imran Khan and supported his anti-Establishment stance. Regardless of the means employed, the message is unambiguous: Imran Khan is not the ultimate leader.
The third message is to the people, especially the youth who supported Imran Khan and engaged in violence. The message is: There will not be any revolution in Pakistan, unless the Establishment wants it.
The PTI’s Collapse Within
The second major outcome of the 09 May violence is the internal collapse of the PTI:
Until May 09, the party and its leadership were on a political and legal rampage against the government – both at the national level and in Punjab. Imran Khan also took on the Establishment; the accusation of the former army chief, and insisting on including the name of a serving officer in the FIR on Imran’s assassination attempt were a prelude to the violence on that day. The party may have believed it had the power to take on the Establishment.
Perhaps, the Establishment was waiting for an opportunity to strike back, and the 09 May violence gave that. Attacking military installations and residences – may not have been preplanned as the Establishment is building a case against the rioters, but it has been used as a valid excuse to come down on the PTI.
The collapse of PTI leadership highlights the state of political parties in Pakistan when they choose not to comply with the Establishment. Prominent leaders of the party, known worldwide, made the decision to disassociate themselves from both the party and Imran Khan following the events of 09 May. They publicly denounced the violence and subsequently resigned from the party.
The collapse of PTI was similar to what had happened to MQM a few years prior. While Altaf Hussain was targeting the Establishment, the latter was waiting for an opportunity and used one of the former’s speeches to target him. The party was broken, and the second-rung leaders of the MQM left Altaf Hussain to form different factions.
Similar to Imran Khan, Altaf Hussain possessed and still possesses a charismatic appeal to his followers. Both leaders have a devoted fan base. The underlying message then and now remains unchanged - political parties cannot defy the Establishment's boundaries, no matter how popular the leader may be.
The Return of Political Opportunism: Deja Vu
If Imran Khan and the PTI are facing the wall, how are the other political parties responding?
It is almost like the repeat of 2017-18. The PML-N fell out of the Establishment. The latter propped Imran Khan as an alternative.  Imran and the PTI were happy then and saw it as an opportunity. Had it not been for the Establishment and its political engineering, especially in Punjab, the PTI would not have formed the government in 2018.
In 2023, the actors have changed, but the issue remains the same. Imran and the PTI fell out of the Establishment. PML-N and the PPP see this as an opportunity. There is political engineering again, led by the Establishment, especially in Punjab. It has broken down the PTI; whatever Jahangir Tareen may claim in forming a new party now, the reality remains the same. Political opportunism by other political parties and leaders when one becomes the target of the Establishment.
Blaming the Establishment for political engineering is only one aspect of the issue. Yielding to it highlights another issue in Pakistan’s politics. And this has been recurring.
So, what is the tally sheet?
Simple. The Establishment remains the boss.
Second, political leaders, whether they have a cult following, as in the case of Imran Khan or Altaf Hussain, or they lead a political party with cadres as in the case of Nawaz Sharif, they should not take their popularity for granted.
Third, there is a political box as defined by the Establishment. An element of maneuvering within the box is acceptable. But any attempt to change it is not. And that should be the primary message of 09 May from the Establishment to Pakistan: Whatever will be, will be.

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