NOT everything is as it seems. Start with the power riots that engulfed cities across the Punjab while the Supreme Court announced its verdict disqualifying the prime minister.
Irony can be an unpleasant pill, and there was irony in the fact that the power struggle being waged in Islamabad is the biggest reason why we have a power crisis in the country at all.
Whenever things get a little too intense, and too confusing, a good piece of advice is to take a longer view and ask yourself a simple question: where does this story begin?
When we ask this question regarding the power crisis — when did it really begin? — we are led further and further back in time until it becomes hard to tell where economics and policy end and politics begin.
The root cause of our power crisis, one version tells us, is the failure to mobilise the required private-sector investment needed to build the capacity we desperately need.
Another version says this is nothing but a governance problem — too many people consuming electricity for free, too much leakage due to aging transmission systems, too much power in the hands of the bureaucracy, too many politicians making money rather than solving the country’s problems.
Yet another version will tell you about our ‘growing dependence on imported furnace oil’ as the fuel for power generation, a growing dependence that hangs like a millstone around our necks as oil has become the single largest item in our import bill.
A few years ago there was another version you don’t hear much anymore. Remember when everybody screamed about how the Musharraf government failed to install ‘a single megawatt’ in their decade in power?
A slightly savvier soul might point out that there is a fiscal dimension to this crisis. ‘It’s not that we don’t have the electricity to meet our requirements,’ the savvy soul will tell you. ‘It’s that we don’t have the money to pay for this electricity.’ And then the savvy one will launch into a short discussion of the circular debt and dazzle you with a few numbers: ‘… three hundred billion rupees! … price differential claims…. unrealised pass through….’ And so on.
Many a ‘the root cause of our problems’ type of discussion begins and ends with an arbitrarily chosen point. Of course there is growing dependence on furnace oil in our power sector, but isn’t this because there has been a failure to mobilise investment in areas outside the basic thermal power plants?
And doesn’t that failure stem at least in part from the clout of the power-sector bureaucracy? You could on and on like this for a very long time before realising that you are in fact going round and round in circles.
Locating the ‘root cause’ of our woes became very easy suddenly on Tuesday because for one brief moment the story came together. Power riots in the streets of Punjab, and power struggle in Islamabad: everything out in the open for all to see.
The reason why we have a power crisis in this country is the same reason why we have an ‘education emergency’, and a health emergency that results in the annual appearance of dengue becoming a ritual phenomenon, where even a senior legislator cannot undergo a routine operation without becoming a casualty of malpractice, where Pakistan is practically the only country in the world left with the polio virus still active.
We have a crisis of the state on our hands, and that crisis grows directly and unambiguously out of the endless power struggle that unfolds in Islamabad.
So what happened on Tuesday — the prime minister’s disqualification and the power riots in Punjab — are in fact linked intimately. If they weren’t events of such deadly seriousness I’d even be tempted to indulge in a cheap metaphor or two. But instead, I’ll offer only a small insight that a memory longer than that of a gnat affords us.
Every time a democratic space has opened up in Pakistan, powers have conspired to mire it down in internal, factional struggles, lest it grow out of their control. It’s what happened with the government of Mr Junejo, who was summarily sent home because he dared to work against the will of his khaki masters and sign the Geneva Accords and talk about a cut in the defence budget.
Ever since, the game has been the same. Inject the democratic space with opposing forces, and watch them cut each other down. If Benazir defied the military in her first term, the result was Nawaz Sharif. In her second term in power she learned a lesson and played ball, and the result was the Taliban and court cases against her. There is no way to win in this game it seemed, nothing for a civilian ruler to do but channel the will of the khaki overlords of this country and lie down for the train to pass over.
The result has been a failure all along to make a single strategic decision, to establish a horizon beyond 12 months. In Pakistan, having a popular mandate to rule handed to you by the people through free and fair elections, the outcome of which is not contested by anyone, matters very little.
It’s to the khaki masters, and their proxies in and out of the democratic space, that you have to look to earn your right to rule. No wonder governance is something no government has cared too much about.
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist covering business and economic policy.