RED ZONE FILES: We all fall down

Updated 22 Oct 2020

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PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, JUI-F chairperson Fazlur Rehman and PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz seated on a stage set up at Karachi's Bagh-i-Jinnah, the venue of PDM's second rally on Oct 18. — Photo courtesy Twitter
PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, JUI-F chairperson Fazlur Rehman and PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz seated on a stage set up at Karachi's Bagh-i-Jinnah, the venue of PDM's second rally on Oct 18. — Photo courtesy Twitter

Today harkens the past we all wished would stay interred with all its noxious memories.

Mistakes have started to happen. The noise decibel is rising. Space for civility is shrinking. Ego is crowding out rationality. Red lines are approaching. Solutions are fading into the mist. There is dread. There is fear. We are entering charted territory because we have traversed it so often. We should know the signs. We have seen them before. Here comes the crisis.

Blow the whistle. Call the referee. Oh, wait…

What happened in Karachi has clearly not stayed in Karachi. If the term ‘climbing up the escalatory ladder’ ever had a practical manifestation in our political landscape, here it is in all its living colour. Just when you think you’ve seen every possible political travesty in Pakistan, another one leaps out at you. An Inspector General (IG) of police ‘kidnapped’ and forced to approve an FIR, a hotel door broken down to arrest a politician while his wife is in the room, an entire police force walking off duty in protest, and the army chief having to intervene when a prime minister should have done so — would this not be better suited for a republic that grows a lot of bananas?

Climbing the escalatory ladder is a choice. But at one point it becomes the only choice. We are not at that stage and still have a choice. The situation on the ground however is pushing all stakeholders higher and higher, rung by rung, day by day.

Survey the landscape and this is what you see:

The PDM is on a warpath. Its two jalsas in Gujranwala and Karachi have been solid shows. The speeches from the stage have broken new ground and framed national discourse in a way that has not happened in the past. The alliance has survived the strain of retired Capt Safdar’s ordeal and may have, for now, pushed the parties closer. First Mian Nawaz Sharif named names. Now Bilawal Bhutto has too. Maulana Fazlur Rehman has also stepped up his attacks as evidenced by his conversation with the media on Wednesday. PDM has also escalated its war of words, with multiple leaders holding press conferences to blast the government and reinforce their message that the Imran Khan government has become a burden on the country.

The PTI government is on a warpath. After Prime Minister Imran Khan’s fiery speech last week, his party people have taken the cue and upped the ante. This escalation was clearly in motion when PTI leaders in Karachi took it upon themselves to pressure the police for an FIR against retired Capt Safdar. This renewed aggression was also dripping from Information Minister Shibli Faraz’s press conference on Wednesday when he called opposition leaders thugs and taunted Maryam Nawaz Sharif for her “shoes and makeup” while pooh-poohing she was no Benazir.

The Establishment is being pushed into a warpath. When uniformed federal agencies compelled the IG Sindh to come to their office in the middle of the night and do something against his will, they willingly crossed a line that could have led to institutional chaos. The very fact that army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa had to intervene and order an enquiry to determine if the uniformed federal agencies did indeed cross a red line, illustrates the dangerous level that the situation has reached. The real danger however lies in the fact that viciously partisan politics is now enmeshed with institutional actions creating a volatile cocktail that can spark off an even greater crisis.

Everyone is on the edge. Everyone is looking into the abyss. No one wants to step back. The country is stuck in a political traffic jam.

Inside the Red Zone, sane people are watching this insanity unfold with trepidation. They have seen this before so they can recognise the familiar signs of impending chaos. They also know the atrocious governance by PTI is adding fuel to their political fire. So what happens now?

In the worst case scenario, this escalation will continue and domination dynamics will come into play. In this state of play each stakeholder doubles down to dominate the other because that is the only outcome that is acceptable. PDM will escalate through jalsas and rhetoric, the government will escalate through cases and arrests, then PDM will escalate through harsher rhetoric and street power, then the government will escalate through even more repression and even more harsh rhetoric, then PDM will converge on to Islamabad for a direct confrontation and the government will escalate by drawing and enforcing red lines near the red zone. Then everything could go wrong in a pall of smoke. And the Establishment? Well if what happened in Karachi is an indication of how things could escalate, then this ladder goes really high.

But at some point, the ladder ends. There are no more rungs to step on. The only way to go is down and down.

Things go wrong on the way down. Or you go down when things go wrong. Either way, escalation without an escape hatch, or without an intermediary who can provide the escape hatch, is an invitation to disaster. What is today’s escape hatch? Who is today’s intermediary?

In the best case scenario, everyone steps back. One step, or two or three, but step back. When you are not looking into the abyss and the abyss is not staring back, options tend to open up. Stepping back would mean an acknowledgement that (a) ours is a multi-stakeholder system and each player needs space; (b) a political solution will be found by opening up a channel of communication where people stop shouting insults and start exchanging grievances; and (c) we need to devise some rules — not too many but some basic ones — that determine turfs, roles and responsibilities among all stakeholders so that conflict resolutions is built into the system and matters never reach the stage where they did in Karachi earlier this week.

Fair enough. But there’s a problem with this scenario: who steps back first?

Herein lies the tragedy of our system. Inside the Red Zone we are all armed with the trappings of constitutional democracy: the imposing Presidency, the sprawling parliament, the towering Supreme Court, the somber Civil Secretariat — and yet none of these hallowed institutions — and the women and men who staff them — can craft a solution to political problems when they balloon into a systemic crises. Today we are at a stage where despite all national institutions, and elected representatives, and constitutional offices, and national security mandarins, we are grappling with our problems in medieval styles: off with his head.

Someone needs to step back. Who has the moral courage and conviction to do so?

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2020