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Ticking clock

September 28, 2014


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

WE’VE been here before and we haven’t. It matters and it doesn’t. What goes around comes around. The winners will be the losers, eventually. The losers will return, eventually.

What’s new about what’s going on in Pakistan? The boys are greedy, the pols are grubby, and everyone else gets to watch the boys and the pols fight over dividing what ought to belong to the people.

We’ve seen it all before, we’ll see it all again. If we could leave it at that, no big deal. Everyone could get on with their lives.

Birth pangs of a new scheme of things, death convulsions of the old order, something in between, time would tell. Eventually, we may cross over from the Hobbesian to the Lockean.

But time — that’s the problem. Deep down there’s a fear many may feel but few want to articulate: this project, this country, this endeavour, it may be running out of time.

First though the issue of what’s visibly going on. Essentially, the debate is about systems vs results: which would you prefer?

The militant complex is so ubiquitous now that few even recognise it as an aberration.

Democrats, the few that there are here, are arguing for the system. The people are demanding results. To be fair, if the system has failed the people — and it has — then why root for a broken system?

Here’s the problem: simultaneously, the locus of power is also being contested. And without a fixed locus of power, there’s little any centre of power can do to deliver to the people in a meaningful, sustainable way.

Essentially, who’s supposed to call the shots and, critically, remain calling the shots: the elected folk or the unelected boys? Until we figure that out, there’ll be no results, none of that stuff the people need and are agitating for.

Nonsense, you’re thinking, the boys don’t want to take over. But that doesn’t matter. The damage is already done.

Imagine you’re a politician. After this, post inquilab and azadi, what’s your incentive to think long term, to fix the system?

Zardari was pushed into survival mode right off the bat; Nawaz’s mandate has been killed off in little over a year — so why bother thinking five years and to the even more remote possibility of reward in the form of re-election?

Aha, but even if they could, you’re thinking, they wouldn’t have anyway — politicians are scummy and never had the people’s interests at heart.

Probably. It is still though a lasting damage that will come of all of this: the politician’s incentive to think long term — the little incentive he had — has been killed off.

And here’s why the damage will be lasting: if the politicians won’t, the boys can’t. And can’t is worse.

Go back to the first three years of Musharraf. The seven-point governance plan and its execution were about as good as it has ever got on the governance side in seven decades of this country’s existence.

Great, so all we need is a decade and a half of that and, boom, the country is solidly middle-income, educated, vibrant, and ready for more.

Except, no. Forget ideological considerations, democratic preferences, suspicions about the boys’ real motives, etc.

The single most compelling reason against military rule is, the time it would take for much-needed reforms to become irreversible is longer than the time a dictator can hold on to power.

For reasons of history, for reasons of politics, for reasons of society, for reasons of jurisprudence, a dictator-for-life isn’t happening here. We can thank the gods for such small mercies or pray fervently that they be withdrawn, but that’s the reality here.

After three years, Musharraf’s court-sanctioned grip on power loosened. His need for fresh political legitimacy from there on drew him into the very compromises that slowly choked his original reforms agenda.

Dictators can’t hang on here — it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to Pakistan, but, if you don’t care about the democratic system, it’s also the worst.

Because dictatorships are condemned to having a shorter life than the time it would take to make reforms (assuming they’re of the right kind) irreversible and self-sustaining, to drag us from a vicious cycle to a virtuous one.

As long as the locus of power remains contested, the problem of results will remain: the boys can’t, the pols won’t.

If that was all there was to this story, most of us could tune out and let the chips fall where they will. Nawaz, Imran, Raheel — who cares when we already know they have no real incentive to nor will the system let them.

Except — the clock. Time.

As Pakistan declines, as the state crumbles, as systems fail, as results diminish and possibilities shrink, there is one system that is going in the opposite direction: the infrastructure of jihad — the mosque-madressah-social welfare network that creates an enabling environment for religiously tainted radical ideologies and violent agendas — is booming.

The only growth industry in Pakistan is the militant complex. It’s everywhere, so ubiquitous now that few even recognise it as an aberration. And soon, we may find out what happens when a booming industry, the infrastructure of jihad, catches up to and overtakes a declining state.

Miserable and predictable as civ-mil and Pyrrhic wars among the civilians are, it would almost — almost — be acceptable if it were the only game in town. Eventually, someone would win.

But there’s a dark horse, the infrastructure of jihad, in this race now. And the longer the race goes on, the more miserable and predictable iterations of the old equation are, the more it looks like the dark horse may win.

Time — that’s really what Pakistan doesn’t have much of anymore.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, September 28th , 2014