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Our turn next?

July 07, 2013

IT will, it won’t. It will. It won’t. Predict the doomsday scenario and you’re the gloomy chap who refuses to accept the glass is filling up. Plump for stability and you’re the schmuck who didn’t see the freight train coming.

Something strange has happened. Militancy aside — and yes, that’s a big, big aside — stability, democratic, political stability, seems to have broken out in Pakistan. Just as the world around us appears to be collapsing in on itself.

Two years ago, everybody agreed the Arab Spring wasn’t possible here. For who would it be against? Pakistan has a pretty decent track record of chucking out its dictators and autocrats and fools. No inspiration needed there, thank you very much.

As if to prove the point, Tahirul Qadri arrived on the scene — and failed spectacularly. But then Turkey happens, Brazil too and now Egypt again, and the question has shifted, slightly but meaningfully.

What happens if a system inches towards institutional stability — as Pakistan’s is — but it occurs at a speed too slow to overtake the people’s unhappiness with the system?

If it’s possible to agree that the system here is failing more people than it is aiding, even if there is now some improvement in the system, could it already be too late to prevent an explosion?

After all, the key ingredient is already present: a divided people. Urban and rural, the Land Cruiser cohort versus the torn-slippers segment, the true believers and the culturally religious, the regionalists and the centralists, the jihadists versus the materialists.

Added to that are two other, significant problems. One, nobody knows the proportions of the divisions.

Yes, there are rich and poor, happy and unhappy, militancy sympathisers and believers in a strong state, people with options in life and those with none — but how many of each?

Proportions matter to those terrible but useful clichés: tipping points and critical mass. The point was somewhat messily illustrated in Balochistan during the elections. The first election in which the moderates tested the electoral waters since insurgency gripped the province was the first real test of where the public’s sympathies lie.

A solid mandate for the moderates and it would have meant all is not lost in the province. A drubbing for the moderates and it would have meant the people had turned their backs on the idea of Pakistan.

In the end, it was hard to be sure which way the electorate had voted, so opaque and messy were the elections in swathes of the Baloch areas. But there were hints that the moderates have lost ground.

So what’s the proportion of grudging separatists and still-believing nationalists? Is the game up in Balochistan already? Who knows. But it sure doesn’t look good.

Problem No 2: the folk in-charge aren’t sure either who fits where in the wagon wheel of national divisions, and they have even less of a clue what to do about it.

A political leadership that doesn’t truly understand the society it represents and an army leadership insulated from the effects of its manipulations of society makes for a pretty disconnected decision-making grid.

The silliness over talks with the TTP exemplifies the problem. There may be, and probably are, other reasons for the PML-N and Imran Khan to preach reconciliation with the irreconcilable, but plain ignorance is too obvious a candidate to ignore.

The Sharifs know Punjab and the perils that stalk it, and long ago they made the decision to co-opt those threats. But would Nawaz be able to tell a Hakeemullah from a Baitullah or a Fazlullah from a Mangal Bagh?

And while the PML-N sat in the opposition in Islamabad the past five years, parliament is entirely out of the loop on how, for example, Fata radiates trouble into Afghanistan and Pakistan proper.

Pakistan is a very different country to the one Sharif led in ’99.

Imran’s case is even worse. He’s never actually had to deal with anything. The closest thing he’s received to an education on present-day Pakistan is the much-alleged schooling on politics from Gen Pasha. The rest Khan has had to make up himself, and, as another cliché goes, a little education can be a dangerous thing, particularly if it’s self-taught.

If they, the pols, don’t know or understand the threat, how do they respond effectively to it?

Forget militancy, the pols don’t even really understand the electorate that votes for them: the PML-N was surprised by the margin of its victory in Punjab; the PTI had talked down its chances in KP.

They will: the people will erupt. They won’t: the safety valves are too many, the tipping point too far off.

Every time there is a power riot, it blows over quickly enough. Dead Shias in January and February meant countrywide protests, but Shias are still dying and the living haven’t massed in the hundreds of thousands to protest.

An unjust and unfair tax system is perpetuated in the budget, people grumble into microphones at the petrol station and in the local bazaar, and that’s about it. The fired-up Khanistas believe an election was stolen from them, but soon enough they shrugged and got on with their lives.

And yet, nothing is truly well. Roam the country, watch TV, scan your SMS, surf the web — there’s so much anger and discontent out there. For reasons good and bad, for reasons many and singular, for reasons real and perceived, it’s out there and it’s very real.

And maybe one day, it — they, them, a rainbow coalition or a mishmash, the few, the many or the all — may decide enough is enough.

And if that day comes, it will seem obvious that it would come eventually. People will nod and say, yes, this was inevitable.

Equally obvious: no one will know what to do about any of it.

The writer is a member of staff. Twitter: @cyalm