It was always a matter of when rather than if. The same page rhetoric was never going to last. For more than 40 years, Pakistan’s militarised polity has been shaped by countless experiments in political engineering. The latest one, embodied by the country’s purportedly incorruptible prime minister, now appears to be headed towards the standard conclusion.

It matters little whether the stand-off between Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and the establishment precipitates a slow death for the hybrid regime or if in fact, the end comes quickly. It is even plausible that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf lives to fight on past the 2023 election. But the die has been cast.

Hybrid system

Despite what some think, it is futile to excavate principles of “civilian supremacy” from this episode. In recent times alone, the Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office has been the source of pronouncements about the Afghan Taliban breaking the shackles of slavery, the imperative of mainstreaming the Pakistani Taliban and the formation of yet another religious oversight authority.

The country has been here before, and the falling out of a previously blue-eyed boy with the establishment has never produced an overhaul of the system. Substantive democratisation of the Pakistani state and society demands an end to the logic that guides virtually all mainstream politicians – splash enough money to get elected and then court the establishment to find a place in government.

While the “crisis” within the civil-military combine has been playing out, the brand of militarised capitalism to which all segments of the ruling bloc pledge allegiance continues to brutalise ethnic peripheries and working people across the country. Not a day goes by in Balochistan, for instance, that does not bring news of an extrajudicial killing of children and adults alike. The Pakhtun border zone with Afghanistan is again being bled by religious militancy. Political workers and journalists continue to be disappeared. Women and girls suffer harassment and violence to no end. Dispossession, real estate bonanzas, economic hardship, throttling the media – the list could go on.

Brewing demographic pressures are intensifying. I have repeated many times that Pakistan’s current youth bulge has the makings of an organic crisis the likes of which neither the establishment nor mainstream politicians have encountered before. In recent weeks and months, hundreds of thousands of students in the higher education sector have erupted in protests for a host of reasons including administrative irregularities and the mismatch between increasing costs of education and declining facilities. These protests bridge metropolitan centres and peripheries alike, especially in the case of medical students.

Some if not many of these protests are driven by parochial demands. Others are more substantive, especially those which bring to light the rapid corporatisation of education. The content is less significant than the fact that most Pakistanis are young, aspire to a “better life” than their parents, and, whether they are fully conscious of it or not, face little prospect of the dreams they are being sold coming to fruition.

‘Naya Pakistan’ narrative

Let us be reminded that a critical mass of the 15 crore young people in Pakistan, particularly in Punjab and big urban centres, jumped on the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf bandwagon during the height of its popularity, believing the hype about “Naya Pakistan”. While there are no statistics to tell us how many are still clinging onto a sinking ship, there are enough anecdotes to infer that many are now disillusioned with the largely superficial narrative.

Who is speaking to this massive demographic and offering them a genuine alternative to the merry-go-round politics that we have been saddled with since the Zia years? Sloganeering aside, the other mainstream parties, most notably the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Pakistan Peoples Party, have hardly articulated a coherent political and economic programme beyond debt, dispossession and patronage. Until they do, I will not be convinced that they want anything other than yet another bite at the same old khaki cherry.

This is not simply an academic matter. The brutalised Baloch and other peripheries offer cautionary tales about the perils of disaffected youth. Add unrelenting inflationary pressures and glaring unemployment statistics to the mix and even metropolitan centres can become repositories of alienated young people for whom toxic state nationalism and weaponised religion are the political ideologies of choice.

Of course, it is in the cauldron of such social contradictions that new political forms gestate. The last time an elected government in Pakistan enjoyed a genuinely popular mandate to undertake land reform, discipline capital rather than labour and dismantle the colonial social contract was in the 1970s. Five decades on, a genuine progressive alternative can take root in our young population if the country generates the will to make it happen. If there is a “same page” that matters, it is the people’s page.

This article first appeared in Dawn.