The carousel of politics

01 May 2016


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

THE overt stuff is easy enough to explain. Nawaz wants to rule. Imran wants to be PM. The boys want to protect their institutional predominance.

And Panama was never about Panama.

Panama is about opportunity — and threat. Threat for Nawaz and his rule. Opportunity for Imran and the boys.

More than two decades on, Imran is where Nawaz was. Nawaz is where nobody was. The boys are where they’ve always been.

It’s been so overt that there’s little need to explain it.

But Panama may have also revealed something quietly disturbing: a slow slide back to the turmoil of the ’90s.

More than two decades on, the cast has changed, as have the roles and the positions. Imran is where Nawaz was. Nawaz is where nobody was.

The boys are where they’ve always been. And, most of all, there’s no president and 58(2b) to inject rocket fuel into petty discord.

But the similarities are eerie and growing.

On the political side, the ’90s were also a kind of psychological drama about the hunger for power and impatience.

This time round, Imran has that — and then some. Panama is, as Imran and his PTI have made clear, about ouster — of Nawaz. It is not about the system.

Surrounded as he has himself by money and the moneyed, Imran doesn’t really have a problem with the system. Politics is for the rich and the rich need to do what they do to make politics possible.

Imran didn’t, doesn’t and won’t have a problem with that. His revolution is about himself — bring him in and the system will automatically improve.

But that’s only one aspect of the personal — and with it, systemic destabilisation — that Imran brings to the game.

The other is his effect — on Nawaz. Nobody gets under Nawaz’s skin like Imran. It’s more than just Imran’s claim on Punjab and the electoral threat he represents.

There’s something about Imran that seems to drive Nawaz crazy.

Maybe it’s because Imran is essentially Nawaz from an era past — seeing yourself in your enemy has driven many a man crazy before.

Maybe it’s because Nawaz believes Imran is unworthy — an unworthy leader, an unworthy aspirant to leader of Punjab, an unworthy politician, an unworthy man.

Whatever it is, Nawaz can’t seem to help but respond to Imran. Furiously. Beyond reason, measure or good political sense.

Which is problematic because Imran’s politics is all about poking and prodding Nawaz.

That forces mistakes — mistakes of overreaction. Try as you might, you can’t imagine Nawaz responding so personally and angrily and politically to anyone else leading the Panama charge.

But because it’s Imran doing it, we have a ruling party that’s gone into campaign mode — a mode that plays right into the hands of Imran and his brand of perma-politics.

Imran, because of who he is and what he represents to Nawaz, is a chief element in this new era of politics as a psychological drama.

Turn to Nawaz. Three years into a third stint, the limitations have become apparent. In many ways, but perhaps none more damningly so than as the chief custodian of the democratic project.

Continuity was supposed to be a means to an end.

Help continuity along and perhaps over time the space would open for an improvement in the quality of democracy — politics, governance, policy, the whole lot.

Marginal bits here and there, but on the whole, a trudge in the right direction. Crises — they could have been the catalyst for big changes.

But in his response to crises, we’ve seen that Nawaz’s contribution to politics is stale and limited: reject systemic reforms, embrace patronage politics and hunker down.

In both the actual reaction — fight politics with politics — and the non-reaction — no attempt to make reforms to the system — Nawaz is undermining the logic of continuity.

What’s the point of continuity if it won’t deliver a better democracy?

And how do you buttress continuity if Nawaz is busy signalling that he sees politics and policy as little more than an electoral knife fight?

Once, twice, thrice — how many times will be too many if all each crisis yields is a government response that pours more politics on politics?

Finally, there’s the boys.

Co-habitation works if the division of labour is respected — by both sides. But co-habitation has an obvious problem: the urge to encroach.

Managing the big-ticket items — as the boys do right now — does two things. It makes you confident about your abilities and dismissive of the abilities of the other side.

We’re getting close to a tipping point.

The tipping point where the boys are so enamoured of their perceived successes, so confident about the ability to manage things and so contemptuous of the civilian side that continuing to stay out of politics — out in a relative, Pakistani sense — may not seem like such a good idea anymore.

The worst place for us to be is when someone starts to believe that we — you and me, the regular folk — need them. To save us. To be in-charge. To fix things.

Throw all of that together and it could spell a great deal of danger. Familiar danger.

A leader who won’t march us forward. A would-be leader who’s determined to drag us back. A predominant institution whose self-belief is sky-high and regard for politics is reaching worrying lows.

The carousel of the ’90s may be closer than we realise.

A bigger, gaudier, messier version.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2016