IT is truly barren in Islamabad.
The drought of meaning and the void of substance has blanketed this city with dogged vengeance. What does this melancholic state of being portend? Does it signify our slow dive into rhetorical nothingness? Or does it hint at something more sinister that may bring about a greater fall for us all?
Ah! Therein lies the dilemma of a land reeling under the lumbering weight of a government that continues to be amazed at its own bewilderment. Could we really be what we are, or are we what we could have been, ask ministers to each other. An entire tehreek of the insafian kind is revelling in the amusement of its own inadequacies. How does one even begin to explain this cruel paradox?
But wait. Let us not punish the ‘P’ for crossing the ‘t’ and dotting the ‘i’. At the heart of our collective dismay lies something deeper than the failures of one man or one party or one government. No, ladies and gentlemen, this barren land, nourished by a barren discourse and windswept by a barren brand of politics has enough barrenness to accommodate all those who pretend to have a stake in the game. Desolation yawns across the political divide.
The virility of political action has been replaced by the dull theatrics of shallow absurdity.
Where there should be vigour, there is inertia; where there should be passion, there is indifference, where there should be governing, there is aimlessness and where there should be opposition, there is retreat. The virility of political action has been replaced by the dull theatrics of shallow absurdity. It is depressing to pretend this is democracy.
What harkened the setting of this stage? Perhaps it was the misplaced belief somewhere that the organic spirit of democracy could be manufactured to achieve ideal results; perhaps it was the imagined confidence that an over-supply of sincerity could compensate for an under-supply of competence; or perhaps it was the unjustified bravado that reckless defiance could overcome the ingrained culture of deference.
In the end, it did not work out — not for misplaced belief, not for imagined confidence and certainly not for unjustified bravado. Today, all three lie humbled in this desolate and barren land. The price we pay for hubris is a steep one indeed.
Look at what passes for national discourse in the era of now. It is awash with debasement. Hollow anger, trivial vileness and inconsequential acrimony pollute parliament and primetime. The burden of problems is shouldered by a discourse that is devoid of the strength of substance. The sum total of parliamentary debates, multi-media press conferences and media discussions falls far short of what a functioning democracy demands.
And what does it demand? At the very minimum, an informed discourse that pushes national conversation towards clarity and transparency. Today, more than ever, the voter is right to expect all major political stakeholders to generate such a conversation and enrich it with knowledge that comes from the experience of governance. Instead, what we have is adults engaging in infantile name-calling to please their boss or his boss or their collective boss. This at a time when Pakistan could do with some real unpeeling of policy options.
Between the PTI, PML-N, PPP, PML-Q, MQM, JUI-F and BNP, how many informed debates have we witnessed on issues that are defining Pakistan today?
The US and Afghan Taliban are on the verge of signing a deal which will see the US withdrawing from our neighbourhood after two decades. What happens once the Americans leave? What should be our national interests in a post-US Afghanistan and how should these national interests be pursued? What is the position and thinking of our political parties? Deafening silence rolls across this barren land like tumbleweeds.
The economy is groaning under the crushing weight of IMF’s conditionalities. The government is running on empty when it comes to alternatives. What happens if the burden becomes too much? Can we renegotiate the terms? Can we walk out of the programme? If we do, how do we keep the economy afloat? These are weighty matters that require weighty deliberations and options. Does the PML-N have any answers? Does the PPP have any alternatives? Does the JUI-F have any suggestions? Deafening silence rolls across this barren land like tumbleweeds.
The state-owned enterprises are bleeding billions of rupees every month. Each party had promised to reform them or sell them to save the economy from further haemorrhaging. None has. In fact, everyone has forgotten them if we were to listen to the national discourse. Does anyone among these parties have any idea what to do with these white elephants and how to do it? Do these parties have the capacity and knowhow to indulge in discussion and debate that opens up options for a possible solution that could stop this financial bleeding? Deafening silence rolls across this barren land like tumbleweeds.
The list is long, the attention span is short. The federal government and the federal parliament should be awash with matters that are defining our present and future. But such is the bankruptcy of thought and famine of ideas that precious little gets done beyond name-calling, abuse-sharing and finger-pointing. This system is jamming itself faster than most realise. A functioning democracy cannot sustain itself on hate and mutual exclusion; it cannot regenerate its spirit in the absence of a working relationship between key stakeholders; and it most certainly cannot deliver governance to citizens on the back of a fractured parliament that can neither debate what must be debated nor legislate what must be legislated.
Make no mistake: we are witnessing the debasement of our democracy. Such debasement will eventually trigger disillusionment which in turn will discredit all institutions. It is turning into a zero-sum game and no one will emerge as the winner at the end. Child’s play this is not.
But where is the spark of policy nourishment? Where is the light of ideational activity? Where is the acknowledgement of representative responsibility?
It is truly barren in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2020