Trapped by the past

October 29, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

NAWAZ Sharif’s illness managed to overshadow the Azadi march temporarily. The bail in quick succession from two high courts — the Islamabad High Court has only granted bail till today when the case will be heard again — has been a source of relief for many concerned about his health and safety, as well as about the political system being driven by vengeance.

Yet, it is unfortunate that the ensuing debate continues to be focused on the immediate. Much of the conversation is focused on Nawaz Sharif’s health, deal rumours, an unequal system in which the health of a few, powerful prisoners matters more than all of them, and what or who is responsible for the deterioration in the former prime minister’s health. Few focused on the larger issue of a political elite so obsessed with the past that its present is consumed by ill-thought-out efforts to punish old wrongdoings by securing the convictions of its predecessors.

The post-2008 configuration offered a chance to move ahead. But this was not to be; it all went downhill from the moment Pervez Musharraf was tried for treason. The split it caused between the PML-N and the establishment was the beginning of the fight we are now caught in the middle of. But it would be an oversimplification to say that this treason trial was triggered simply by the anger and personal vendetta of Nawaz Sharif.

History is rarely as simple as that. The process kicked off earlier — in the effort to remove Musharraf, who by 2006 had become a liability for players within and without. And so, began the process of demonising him; he (along with his policies) was painted as the source of all evil and all that was wrong in Pakistan. And it was convenient for everyone to buy into this because it then appeared that his removal was the only hindrance to elections and democracy.

The streak of vengeance doesn’t just stop with trials and prison terms.

From the privatisation of the Steel Mills to the removal of the chief justice to the operation in Balochistan to the militancy in tribal areas, he was the villain of all tales and the only one behind all the dark deeds. And dark they all were; for by then it had become kosher to criticise and question any policy of his regime including the Lal Masjid operation. State decisions were reduced to individual actions (and even criminal acts) in the hysteria.

Eventually, those who now speak of a truth and reconciliation committee ended up trying Musharraf for treason.

It was not an opportunity Sharif was averse to grabbing, but even then there were many who were eager to nudge him along. Let’s not forget the court which insisted on asking the government if it was going to try a dictator for treason or not — could any government have said no at that point? And then there were the speeches by the friendly opposition leader, Asif Ali Zardari, who famously declaimed in December 2013 that a ‘billa’ had been trapped after having returned and he shouldn’t be let go.

Everyone wanted Musharraf punished but were sensible enough to not risk it. Trapped in the past, Sharif was willing to rush in where angels fear to tread...

And now the present dispensation, Imran Khan and the establishment are behaving no differently.

Khan, too, is trapped by his own rhetoric and perhaps his own experience of a 20-year-old tussle with the PML-N in Punjab; from the moment he entered politics, the PML-N marked him as their equal. From digging up dirt on his personal life to cases against his then wife, Jemima Khan, the PML-N has in the past pulled no stops to discredit Khan and he hasn’t been able to forget it. And then there is his own endless rhetoric about corruption and punishing those who have looted money.

But he too is not operating alone. Alongside are those who have their own agenda against Sharif as well as the ill-equipped institutions being used to curb corruption.

However, in the process, each time we do nothing more than turn the justice system into a vengeful campaign and flawed politicians into heroes and saviours. At the same time, institutions are further weakened as those who have held the highest positions are hounded and vilified. There is a reason, more mature democracies are reluctant to punish their office holders for they realise its adverse impact on the offices themselves.

But as pointed out earlier, this streak of vengeance doesn’t just stop with trials and prison terms. It creeps over to policies; hence, it’s not enough to send Musharraf home without reversing policy decisions because they too become equally illegitimate, regardless of the costs involved. For example, the campaign against Musharraf began with the Steel Mills decision, the sale of which was declared void. Now over a decade later, we continue to debate what to do with this money-guzzling white elephant.

Reko Diq’s agreement too was reversed — at great cost — by those who followed Musharraf and while we condemn it furiously now few are willing to realise that the policy reversal was partly made easy because of our habit of demonising leaders. Once they have been tarred as villains, their policies are easy to dismiss or overturn too. But the cost of these policy reverses are rarely ever seen as a cost of our political blundering.

A recent article in The News argued that our consistent efforts to sensationalise excessive profits charged by the IPPs has convinced everyone of the wrongdoing involved but somehow it has not convinced the investors of the attractiveness of the energy sector. Not a single investor has reinvested under a following energy policy offered by a later government. If the profits were all that great, what kept them from reinvesting for a second whirlwind? Could it be the demonising of the policymaker?

But who has time for such boring questions when we can embroider tales of evil with nasty villains who must be punished? Unlike what George Santayana said, Pakistanis are condemned to repeat history because they refuse to forget the past.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019