Smokers’ Corner: Narrative chaos

Published December 3, 2017
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

I am always baffled by the rather surreal ways competing discourses and narratives emerge during a political crisis in Pakistan. In theory, it should not be a baffling occurrence, really, because the contents and trajectories of these discourses remain more or less the same. Nevertheless, it never ceases to amaze no matter how predictable its emergence and outcome, especially when crises are unfolding on the streets.

As if on cue, the first utterance in this context is almost always, “Yeh sab hukumat khud karwa rahi hai [The government itself is engineering this crisis].” This often comes from opposition groups, some populist media personnel and those who are not such great fans of a sitting government. Equally on cue, then comes a spat of desperate statements from the government. “Some malicious hand is behind this crisis.” The malicious hand soon turns into a “foreign hand” which ultimately morphs into an “Indian hand.” Not far behind in bringing to light its own take on things comes the initial statements from the state and/or the so-called establishment: “We will not let anyone destabilise the integrity and sovereignty of the country. We hope the crisis is resolved in a peaceful manner.”

It is never made clear — at least not in a very convincing or even in any rational manner — just why would a hukumat [government] engineer a crisis against itself? Or how does a malicious/foreign hand always so easily and conveniently manage to plot multiple political commotions in the presence of the numerous security and intelligence agencies operating in Pakistan?

Explanations that emerge during a political crisis in Pakistan predictably evolve but make no logical sense

Well, this is when that other narrative begins to appear: ‘Yeh sab agencies karwa rahien hain [All this is being engineered by the intelligence agencies].’ The establishment is quick to retaliate: “The agencies have nothing to do with this. They stand with the government and the state against any or all aggression against Pakistan.” The reasons given for the “the agencies are doing it” narrative have something to do with the establishment undermining a government or punishing it for undermining the establishment, or something of the sort. This impression often comes from certain quarters within the government or from those opposed to the establishment’s political disposition. The disposition is never quite explained.

As the crisis intensifies and the government begins to panic, the discourses begin to mutate. “This is all being engineered by the government itself” evolves (or devolves) into one which begins to sympathise with those on the streets and puts the blame on the government’s utter incompetence in handling the crisis. Logically, this should mean that a crisis which was engineered by the government itself has gone out of its hands or the government is purposely letting it get out of control. To what end? This is beside the point because, by now, the illogic of yeh sab hukumat khud karwa rahi hai has mutated into a castigation of the government’s handling of the crisis.

So the new logic in this context should suggest that it wasn’t really the government that had engineered the crisis for some Machiavellian political gain, but it was the regime’s overall incompetence and bad policies that made people pour out on the streets and create a commotion? Yes, something like that.

On the other hand, the government’s narrative begins to transmutate as well. The knee-jerk ‘foreign hand’ narrative suddenly goes out the window as the government now decides to hold peaceful negotiations with the commotion-makers. The regime now describes them as ‘patriotic Pakistanis’ who have been ‘misguided’. By whom? That’s beside the point because it can’t be a foreign hand anymore, otherwise that would make the protesters traitors and not patriotic Pakistanis (albeit misguided ones).

The establishment applauds the move and also describes the protesters as patriotic Pakistanis, but reminds everyone that it will not let anyone destabilise the integrity and sovereignty of the country, etc. But

by now one is not quite sure who is trying to destabilise Pakistan? Those on the streets or those in the government? It can’t be any of the two because both are now negotiating a way out of the crisis — an act applauded by the establishment.

When the negotiations stall, the government decides to send in the cops to disperse the protesters. Narratives begin to change again. “This is all being engineered by the government”, which had changed into “The government is handling the crisis in an incompetent manner”, now becomes: “This is sheer brutality by the government against unarmed people!”

So, logically, this should mean that it wasn’t really a crisis engineered by the government, after all? Now it is sheer repression by an incompetent but brutal government? Yes, kind of. Truth is, one is advised never to look for logic in the illogic during a political crisis in Pakistan. So we shall move on.

The government now blames the media for compounding the crisis. But not all media. Imagine two TV sets in front of you telecasting two different news channels. One pro-government and the other anti-government. The pro-government one would be showing a group of protesters thrashing a cop. The anti-government one would be showing cops thrashing the protesters. The establishment intervenes. Expresses its concern and hopes peace would prevail. But it reminds everyone, it will not let anyone destabilise the integrity and sovereignty of the country, etc. One is still not sure which of the two separate TV footages the establishment is referring to. Most probably the establishment itself is not quite so sure. Move on.

Well, the police action fails and all three parties — the government, the protesters and the establishment — finally manage to suddenly discover a peaceful resolution. Once more the narratives mutate. The “this is all being engineered by the government” which had changed into “the government is handling the crisis in an incompetent manner”, which had then evolved (or devolved) into “this is sheer brutality by the government against unarmed people” mutates into “government brutality failed but the military saved the day.”

The government that had suspected a foreign hand and then decided that the protesters were just misguided patriots who needed a bit of police action, now describes the whole commotion as a misunderstanding between two patriotic forces: the government and the protesters. The establishment is happy at the peaceful outcome and rubbishes the claim of yet another narrative that emerges at this point which explains the peace deal as “a surrender of the state and government.”

The government dives behind a sofa, the opposition chases it like a greedy cat chases a mouse and on the sofa sits the establishment happy that it had saved the integrity and destabilisation of Pakistan, etc. Meanwhile, the commotion-makers pick up the sofa and run off with it. Happens every time.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 3rd, 2017

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