IT is hard to outrun evolution.
The frantic pace at which events in Pakistan are hurtling towards an undetermined conclusion reinforces this adage in a twisted way. The opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) — buoyed by its two successful jalsas — is now gathered in Quetta for the third rally scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday). The Quetta event will reinforce the narrative that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has become a burden Pakistan can ill afford anymore.
But under the weight of the government’s weak performance and opposition’s newfound zest; under the weight of vicious partisan warring and a flawed accountability campaign; and under the weight of a hulking establishment irritatingly swatting away buzzing drones of unprecedented public scrutiny – under the crushing weight of all this runs an evolutionary flow that can neither be rushed nor stopped.
It is in this flow — or the turbulence causing the churn — that we may detect one possible reason for the great disorder on display today.
The mistake happened when the new desired equation went against the rules of this land’s organic equilibrium.
There has been a certain rhythm to Pakistan’s political turmoil over the last few decades. This rhythm has swayed key stakeholders — establishment, major political parties, judiciary — to a beat that has quickened and slowed with the force of circumstance. We have whistled to the sweet melody of inclusiveness and transparency, only to bristle at the cacophony of repression and persecution. The funny thing is that sweetness of melody and the shrillness of cacophony have refused to fit in conveniently with the sharp contours of democracy and dictatorship. How else would we explain democrats wanting to be autocrats and autocrats attempting to be democrats? Hybridity may be new as a term but not as a trend.
It is such a trend that has traditionally looped our political system into a three-player arena: establishment (E) plus political party one (P1) plus political party two (P2). The political arithmetic has therefore constantly added up:
E+P1 > P2, or E+P2 > P1
This formula held up in the 1990s when PML-N and PPP took turns in aligning with the establishment to throw each other out and win their way back to power, only to find themselves thrown out by the same formula. The rhythm has its own logic. The establishment would help one party get into power, then start flirting with the other party (the flirting was always mutual), and then strengthen the ousted party to ensure the party in power did not tilt the weight of the system in its favour. In a strangely twisted — perhaps even macabre — way, there was an equilibrium within this disequilibrium.
The synthesis embedded in this controlled chaos kept the evolution moving: media found more space, judiciary found more independence, citizens found more awareness and the economy found more focus. There was noise, and friction, and corruption, and pressures, and creativity, and aspirational mobility and voters wanting more and more — such confluence of demands, desires and dreams defined this crazy, maddening, rambunctious, lively, sprightly and joyfully troublesome land called Pakistan. The country was moving all the time — not always in the right direction, but moving all the same.
The movement also had a logic: in this land everyone had a place and a voice. Sure, some had a larger place and a louder voice, and some had none, but even those who had none fought to have one. This organic restlessness was perhaps a by-product of a society that has never revelled in uniformity; that had instead held on to its differences while grudgingly accepting that these differences — provincial, linguistic, ethnic, sectarian, religious — would remain part of Pakistani life. All have to live in this same land, within the same borders, according to the same Constitution, under the same flag forever and ever. The disequilibrium made the equilibrium.
And so it was that this rhythm of evolution — democratic, social and cultural — was flowing along merrily, though often unevenly, and the rise of Imran Khan and PTI was a natural by-product of this evolution.
Then came the disruption. PTI as political party three (P3) elbowed its way into the arena by creating space for itself the way P1 and P2 had done for themselves earlier — at others expense. With four players in the arena now instead of the original three, the political equation had to be reformulated. The logic so far remained the same: the establishment flirts with the outside party in order to ensure the party in power does not weigh the system in its favour. In 2018, the new equation looked like this:
E+P3 > P1+P2
The logic still held because the precedent was supposed to hold. The party in power would settle down into the system and the establishment would keep a close eye to ensure the equilibrium did not start tilting in the party in power’s favour. The organic flow of evolution should have allowed the party in power to create more space for itself within the system by gaining legitimacy through performance. However, the strengthening of the system meant recognising that this crazy, mad, delinquent and deliciously troublesome land called Pakistan jealously guards its plurality.
The mistake happened when the new desired equation went against the rules of this land’s organic equilibrium. Here’s how the new rulers wanted it to look:
E+P3 = (Infinity), and P1+P2 = 0
The rule to rule was broken; the equilibrium within disequilibrium was broken. Disorder was the organic by-product of this inorganic attempt to force-speed political evolution.
Here’s the reality though: PML-N is a reality like PPP is a reality, like PTI is a reality like the establishment is a reality. None can be obliterated because the others think so. It is the competition between them — fighting, shouting and aligning while recognising each other’s place in the arena — that will produce a natural flow of evolution that this maddeningly troublesome and deliciously lovable land deserves. So let’s get the equation right:
E+P1+P2+P3 = Pakistan
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2020