PAKISTAN’S politics is not a game of hopscotch where you hop, skip and jump according to laid-out rules, retrieve the crucible and then hop, skip and jump back to safety and continue till you misjudge. Nor is it the local pithoo garam where you topple the existing structure and run to reconstruct it before getting hit by the opponent. (You’d think the PML-N would have learnt by now.) It is more like snakes and ladders, but it is worth recalling that the board game was initially about learning morals and seeking redemption where snakes represented vices that brought you down to a lower form of life and virtues were the ladders that promised ascendance.
How should we read this government’s renewed aggression in the face of dissent? They’ve gone from obsessing over rails and roads to railroading as a political solution. Again.
Should we see this as the PML-N’s reverting to its true form, accidental democrats that they are? In the past, stand-offs with other power centres have led the party to attack the courts, take political prisoners, crack down on the media, padlock NGOs and act on amirul momineen aspirations. They’ve learnt the language of democracy since then, but even now their leaders don’t bother showing up in parliament, which is ostensibly what they seek votes for, ie to represent the people in the legislature. By agreeing to apex committees, instituting military courts and consenting to political purges led by the Rangers, they have caused democratic health to regress. They have backpedalled and reneged on the Fata reforms, the single structural change initiative attempted by this government in its current tenure.
The risk that Pakistan’s democracy presents is that it leans towards oppressive majoritarianism.
Or should we see dissenting media as the collateral damage of ‘Operation Same Page’? As elected governments and state institutions grapple for power, must every inch given by the former translate into a mile taken by the latter? Then maybe we can take heart that the non-publicised illegal threats and warnings, disappearances and 72-hour detentions at safe houses now need political fronts and legal cover such as the now defunct Protection of Pakistan Act and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act.
Earlier, compliance was brought about by people including politicians reading the establishment’s collective body language, predicting their wishes and moulding their own actions to suit. Now it seems that it requires unleashing an army of fake social media accounts, embedded anchorpersons, partisan TV channels, instructions to cable operators and retired officers sent out as feelers — the FIA now finds that shadow-boxing by Twitter commentators is a threat to the country.
Thinking persons have pointed out the times that PML-N leaders have defended extremist hatemongers and wept over losing murderous militants. If this is about disinformation being spread through the media, a good question to ask is, why don’t people believe officialdom when it tries to convey the correct version? If it is about slander, the government has the parliamentary majority to pass better libel laws. If this is about nutjobs circulating crazed theories, many of them have allegedly been bankrolled by the state in the past. For the powers that be in Pakistan, we should have a maxim: if you don’t want to be ridiculed, don’t be ridiculous.
The security establishment, meanwhile, may be well advised to conduct some appraisals in its support camp. It is likely to find a high incidence of cognitive inertia, which is the tendency for beliefs to endure once formed and the inability to revise them even when presented with countering evidence. Additionally, it may find a frequency of pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon where the mind finds familiar patterns where actually none exist, such as joining random dots to imagine conspiracies.
In any case, whoever is egging on the ‘us versus them’ rhetoric and positioning democratic consolidation (including freedom of expression and dissent) as either the weakening of the military’s stature or compromising the national interest is not a well-wisher of any side. Opposition, challenge and even rejection in the civil sphere are not the same thing as dissension in the ranks.
The risk that Pakistan’s democracy presents is not that it rallies against the armed forces or that half the GDP ends up in private coffers (it doesn’t, on both counts) but that it leans towards oppressive majoritarianism where those outside the mainstream feel besieged, and that people tend to accept the ‘bread and circuses’ palliative. Roman satirist Juvenal used the phrase to signal the common people’s preoccupation with two things, their physical needs, and their desire for entertainment, where public approval is generated through spectacles and distractions as on TV and at the cost of eroded civic responsibility. To see how bad populism can get, the worst-case scenario is playing out across the border in India.
Pakistan turns 70 this year. Compared to the timelines of many other nations, we’re still experiencing growing pains. At one level, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for having surmounted massive problems faced since inception. At another level, there are enough accelerating crises that cannot be given the required attention while we are stuck in the civ-mil rut.
Constant one-upmanship and second-guessing not just pollutes both the political and the military spheres, it consumes the media and intelligentsia; exonerates the bureaucracy for delivery failure; fractures national and international policy cohesion; defeats serious long-term planning; makes critical economical, health and educational issues secondary; and at the end of the day, leaves the average person wearied and alienated.
It leaves each side decoding invisible text while reading between the lines, even if on the same page. It has brought us to the bizarre point that the state’s interest, the deep state’s interest, the government’s interest, the national interest and the nation’s interest, all mean different things.
While the big guys obsess over their legacies, we need systems, not saviours. But if anyone brings these divergent interests on the same page as the people’s interest, he or she would rise from a hashtag to history.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2017