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Twin evolution

February 22, 2015


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

THE frenzy had been typically Pakistani. The government was being chucked out, the system wrapped up. Democracy was in trouble, again. Death was upon all of us. The world was at an end.

And then the Senate elections happened. Smooth as you like. Nobody cared; nothing untoward happened; the PPP got its near majority, then proceeded to do nothing with it. Everyone else just yawned. Life went on. That was three years ago.

This time round, few have bothered. There have been no conspiracy theories. No juicy scandals. No one is suggesting that a change in the composition of the Senate means anything for anyone. It’s become dull as the toupee on your average representative’s head.

Some might say that’s a good thing. The country needs a break. It needs normality. Some breathing space on the monstrous rollercoaster that is Pakistani politics. Thank God, we finally get to do something the way normal people do stuff.

Except, that isn’t true.

The Senate isn’t a place where normality is asserting itself in some small way; it’s become the place where politics goes to die. Die as in a yawn-inducing irrelevance that is corrosive for democracy.

When nobody can be bothered to even throw out a conspiracy or two; when third-tier politicians and bored, ultra-rich individuals with nothing to do are the only ones vying for tickets; when the public couldn’t give a monkey’s wrench about the whos and whens — you know the only thing being hurt is the system itself.

And this one — the Senate’s slide towards irrelevance — is entirely because of the civilians. No civ-mil, no third forces waiting in the shadows.

Politics — throw it all together — is going through something different.

The Senate is irrelevant because the civilian leadership of the country — last government and assemblies and this government and assemblies — wants the Senate to be irrelevant.

But forget a relevant Senate — what we’ve never had we can’t really miss — and let’s go big picture. Something’s wrong. Everyone can feel it. The system isn’t working.

Whatever the hell this is — civ-mil, the state of governance, the direction of the country, the whole shebang — it sure isn’t what it’s supposed to be, or even where it’s supposed to be going.

We’ve yet to figure out if we’re running round in circles, going backwards or doing sine waves. What we definitely aren’t doing is standing still or getting on a good trajectory.

Why though?

Politics — throw it all together, the civ and the mil, the governments and the parties, governance and policies, strategy and response — is going through something different. It’s not quite the 1990s and it’s not the ’70s or the ’50s either.

It’s something new, straddling the noughties and the teenies so far, roughly a decade old tracing back to the mid 2000s. And there are two markers for it: on the civilian side, roughly the Charter of Democracy; on the boys’ side, roughly the end of the Musharraf era.

The civ and mil approaches that have emerged from those two episodes have combined to shape the politics of the last decade or so and brought us to this new, uncertain era.

Start with the civilian side. They can’t govern, they aren’t interested in reforms and they can’t compete with the boys. Basically, they’re rubbish at running the country. In that, they’re like the political class of all previous decades, especially the ’90s and ’50s.

But there is one important difference: they get continuity. They get that the key to survival is to keep the system going. In essence, they are democrats to the extent that they believe in elections — and have yet to evolve beyond that baseline to include things like governance, systems and reforms.

To put it another way, they believe form is substance. It is a kind of evolution for sure, the belief that elections are democracy and democracy is elections.

That is the principal difference between the civilian political attitudes of the ’90s and over the last decade, and it was forged by the CoD — an agreement born of the civilian experiences of the 1990s.

That accounts for Nawaz and, you have to suspect, had she lived, BB too. For Nawaz, see everything he’s done since coming to power a third time. For BB, look no further than her closest allies and eventual successors — Asif understood continuity; the rest never grasped governance.

Turn to the boys. Times had already changed by the time Musharraf took over. Remember how he became Chief Executive and not CMLA? Remember how the court only gave him three years, refused to let him scrap the Constitution altogether and essentially forced him to hold elections in three years?

Yes, times had changed, in 1999. By 2007-2008, it was a whole different ball game. Resistance had grown, there were more moving parts.

The people had seen too many ‘my dear countrymen’ speeches; the politicians had grown smarter (see above); the courts were harder to smash; the media had been unleashed; subversive messages were rampant over SMS and, for the urbanised lot, the internet.

It wasn’t so much as a chief couldn’t take over if he really wanted to (see, Nov 3, 2007) but that the cost of a takeover had risen. Briefly, and naively, folk assumed the boys would bow to the new logic.

They had — but in a different way. In the demise of Musharraf, you no longer see a loss of control but the rise of a new form of control, the creation of a new template: bludgeoning the civilians into submission; asserting the boys’ core interests; ramping up a PR machine; staying on the right side of public and rank-and-file opinion.

It worked last term, on Zardari and the country, and it’s working this term, on Nawaz and the country. The non-coup is almost as impressive as a real coup.

That then is the new era: civilians evolved to believe elections are democracy; boys’ evolved to exert new forms of control. Not one evolution but two. And only in Pakistan would a double evolution turn out to maybe be a bad thing.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn February 22nd , 2015

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