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Perspective: The year of the atmospherics

Updated January 02, 2019

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IN a manner of speaking, 2018 was quite a year. It is only fair that it should not be taken or described or discussed as ‘one year’; a better marker would be 365 days; or, still better, 8,760 hours. Indeed, there were 525,600 minutes or 31.5 million seconds in the year, but using them as markers would generally be considered overplaying one’s hand. The temptation to do that, however, is genuine for there were days when every hour mattered, and hours when every minute mattered, and minutes where every second mattered. It was THAT kind of a year.

With so much happening so fast and with electronic media in overdrive and social media in hyper-drive, almost nothing remained relevant for any length of time during 2018. It is tough to recall, for instance, that it was this very year when the murder of eight-year-old Zainab jolted all and sundry. SSP Rao Anwar hogged the limelight with his escapade. And Nehal Hashmi found himself in jail over contempt of court. Also, Bushra Maneka became the latest name to be discussed in all kinds of social and political circles, and Reham Khan struggled to sustain public interest despite coming out with an autobiography which was more a biography of her former husband.

The PTI government, which took over almost two months into the latter half of the year, was talked about so much — and it gave so much to everyone to talk about (helicopter et al!) — that it is hard to remember that when the year started, the country had a PML-N government in office. And, yes, there were the caretakers.

Nawaz Sharif became the PML-N Quaid for life and Shahbaz replaced him as the party president, but as the year progressed, the latter ended up replacing the elder brother in terms of confinement. Nothing else mattered till both found themselves together in internment. It was big news when Chaudhry Nisar quit the party, but he was not even a footprint on the 2018 balance sheet. It was that kind of a year.

There were days when every hour mattered, and hours when every minute mattered, and minutes where every second mattered. It was that kind of a year.

And what about the RTS? Remember? It captured the fancy of the nation for days when it happened and was the biggest news on election night – and for few nights after – but the Result Transmission System and everything surrounding it soon lost conversational currency.

This is not surprising, however, when you look at it against the backdrop of the sacking of Justice Shaukat Siddiqui for having accused the ISI of interference in the judicial process. It happened in the last quarter of the year and the judge did talk of going public with his stance on the matter, but apparently, along with the masses and the media, he also lost interest in the case in no time.

Also in the last quarter, the CNG prices per unit for the first time soared past the 100-rupee mark and there was grumbling about what might happen to this, that and everything else. As the year drew to a close, however, price was not an issue for there was no CNG for the consumers before it was partially restored. Even then, domestic consumers continued to report disruption in the supply of natural gas. In many areas the pressure was so low that it was impossible to cook. And this was a concern for those who had something to cook. There were many who struggled on that basic count in the wake of the anti-encroachment drive and nose-diving rupee that swept away livelihoods. Yes, it was that kind of a year.

Come to think of it, television talk shows – and the antics of their hosts – have been there for a while and there was no change on that count in 2018. And that makes one wonder what it actually was that allowed nothing to stay relevant beyond days; sometimes even hours. Two possible elements come to mind. One, there were happenings worth a few years that happened in just one. Two, social media pundits (and trolls) had a field day finding old clips to generate ever more interesting and colourful contrasts to whatever one had said or did.

From the most known of the known to those on the political periphery, almost everyone seemed to have said or done something in 2018 that totally contradicted what they had said earlier. Mian Nawaz Sharif shed new light on, say, Al-Azizia and the Qatari prince, and the government in office kept things lively on fronts that would take some time counting. As a corollary, the reactions of the diehards (and trolls) on both sides of the fence were that much more intense.

Any social scientist trying to understand Pakistanis through their social media output during the year would not be wrong in concluding that the people here are basically intolerant and seriously abusive. At least this is how they – the ‘youthiyas’ and the ‘patwaris’ – behaved on social media; saving their hilarious and contemptuous best for the ‘lifafiyays’.

So, then, what are the key words that might define the year that it was? Naya Pakistan? U-Turn? Accountability? They are all decent competitors, but in case ‘chaos’ is too heavy a word for your taste to describe the year, how about ‘confusion’? Forget everything else and let’s focus on the core. Is the “economic crisis over” or are there “tough days ahead”? Prime Minister Imran Khan and Finance Minister Asad Umar alternated the two statements repeatedly within a couple of months.

All the optics – from four VIPs sharing a single anda-paratha to people offering prayers in their offices – and all the sounds – of making Pakistan greener, better, smarter – remained just that; sounds and optics generating atmospherics which naturally are no replacement for a clearheaded direction.

With a government that has not completed even 150 days in power, it is a fair argument that it needs time to put in place whatever it wants to put in place. Even though it has itself talked of the possibility of mid-term polls within this short period, the argument remains valid. As is said of electoral politics, a candidate is someone who gets money from the rich and votes from the poor to protect them for each other. Imran Khan has done the first part quite successfully; will he be able to protect one from the other with matching success? This is a question 2019 will have to answer.

POSTSCRIPT: These lines were written on Dec 27 by which time Karachi had seen three hit-and-run political murders, and there were a little over four days still left in 2018. They were not just a little over four days. In the context of the year that was, they were 100 hours, or 6,000 minutes, or 360,000 seconds. At sign-off, it was difficult to say whether the year was actually behind us. Anything might have happened in the intervening time. Yes, 2018 was THAT kind of a year.