Imran still in the game, but will civil disobedience work?

Published: August 19, 2014
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What matters is the noise you generate, the numbers you muster—giving you the most important thing in a democracy: the ability to bargain. That battle is not over yet. PHOTO: AFP

In the movie Jinnah, there is a telling scene when Mountbatten asks Mahatma Gandhi to give up his protests and play “by the rules”. Gandhi replies,

“In order to play by the rules, you have to include us in the game.”

Imran Khan feels similarly cheated of things promised by the Constitution. I disagree with him but why are many PTI supporters on the defensive about civil disobedience?

What are the objections?

The most obvious is that it is ‘illegal’. A simple, and powerful, retort: “so what if it is illegal?”.  The call for a mid-term election might have been couched in a different language but, all along, it was a departure from the scheme of the Constitution, that is to say that it is not legal. What is new?

Plus, no law or constitution provides you with a list of ways to politely disobey it. Politics of struggle often demands standing up to laws or systems deemed oppressive — either wholly or as applied. When Rosa Parks sat on a bus seat she was not supposed to, she broke the law. So did Gandhi through civil disobedience. The things they challenged were largely accepted as the norm. Groups perceiving injustice cross a line they are not supposed to. Legality, soundness or morality of actions does not determine their political success. Something else does.

What matters is the noise you generate, the numbers you muster—giving you the most important thing in a democracy: the ability to bargain. That battle is not over yet. Practical matters will sort themselves out if Khan’s politics prevails.

Numbers and noise. The very thing that gives democracy strength becomes a weakness if you are in power. If your opponent gathers large crowds, you cannot ignore it. Ask Chaudhry Nisar.

Does civil disobedience make Pakistan unstable by inviting military intervention?

Khan could ask why his protest should be hostage to fears of others. If an army chief carries out a coup, should Khan be blamed for it? Remember that Khan is an ambitious man—and ambition is often romantic and shrugs off fears. This isn’t meant to say he is justified, but only to argue that the move does not lack complete sense. Don’t dismiss this gamble yet.

Sure, Pakistan does not pay taxes but Khan is asking you to not pay taxes temporarily to a system that stole your mandate. He wants you to ignore the law to reclaim an original, higher, promise. He thinks his opponents violated the law but now want to use the law and, according to him, a rotten system to control him. That is his argument.

Is he being tactically unwise?

There is more to this than other objections. Almost all civil disobedience movements validated by history involved leaders who were seen to be suffering. He can’t ask the people to suffer without doing so himself. Sleeping in a container may not cut it. Maybe he needs to resign and that is a strong argument. Khan needs to make the system and the state look oppressive — and distance himself from it. The government would do well not to help him. He may even consider courting arrest in the coming days. Upping the ante is his best chance. Maybe he wants to push more before tearing up his National Assembly membership. Why would a PTI supporter lose faith without considering this?

If the Federal government is lazy to settle matters, there is a price. The magnitude of the price may vary. With a recount in certain constituencies and no mid-term election, Khan will still emerge stronger than Mr Sharif. The choice will be Khan’s; settle or go all out.

Everything that is political is not, strictly speaking, constitutional.

Much that is part of political cultures does not appear in constitutions. Civil disobedience is one. Does the constitution envisage it? Of course not. But does political calculus in this country only take the constitution into account? As much as we deify the constitution, the talk and fears of a fundamentally unconstitutional step (a military coup) informs much of the analysis. Khan only claims to be reclaiming an original promise.

Politics is more than the law or constitutions. It is often irreverent to things as fleeting as written laws. History is replete with stories of civil rights movements that started off as ‘illegal’—a cold, hard, historical fact.

As far as the efficacy of this civil disobedience movement is concerned, the jury is still out. It is a pressure building tactic and delving into whether there are parallels in history akin to this particular context will not achieve much. Legitimacy and success of movements challenging an existing order, wholly or partially, are determined not by historical analogy, but the public mood and the countervailing public reason or lack thereof.

You may disagree, as I do, with this tactic but what matters are numbers, noise and the pressure. Plus, it is naive to think that only morally sound causes can or should gain mass support. If that were true, no mass dissident movement would have led to oppressive outcomes. The people are the only judge. Therefore discourse, and not force, countering such discourse is important. The state must balance the need for order with accommodation of grievances.

Finally, there are those who say that this civil disobedience will set the wrong precedent. All political upheavals set a precedent and those who cannot counter an upheaval can do little to stop it. People have also raised the spectre of ten thousand mullahs marching on the capital to have their way. They ask, how will we not cave in then if we cave in now? But don’t these questions show that we have very little faith in our democracy to respond to demands and protests–current and future? We haven’t allowed an Islamist takeover with any march till now. Let’s have faith in our democracy and in our ability to withstand pressure.

‘Democracy’ and ‘rule of law’ will have different meanings for different people. As Feldman says, they often mean ‘stuff we like’. After that, if you have the numbers and noise, you are in the game. Khan is not out of it yet. I oppose his politics but I would not write him off.

For man who feels he has nothing to lose, there are only gains—short or long-term. If you voted PTI, now is the time to stand with Khan.

Waqqas Mir

Waqqas Mir

A practicing lawyer with a focus on civil, corporate and constitutional law. Views expressed are his own. Is a Barrister-at-Law and holds a Masters degree from Harvard Law School where he was a Fulbright scholarship grantee. He tweets as @wordoflaw (twitter.com/wordoflaw)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.