IN the political crises that pass for politics in the land of the pure, the sense of déjà-vu is hard to avoid. We seem to be stuck in Groundhog Day where parties are shifted into power and shunted out seamlessly; where one angry leader is always on the streets, taking on the powers that be while the other is in the seat of power, paralysed or confused or both; and the establishment seems to be playing rock, paper, scissors to decide their latest protégé.
It is not just the game of musical chairs which seems to continue ad infinitum but so much else. The economy is always in the sick ward — the ICU and ventilator are a more recent phenomenon — and foreign policy is forever a cause for hand-wringing.
Now that I have successfully used an awful lot of metaphors together, let me get to the point. Despite this hackneyed old script that has played out in front of us for long, the political events do indicate some changes which hold out a whiff of a promise of breaking the cycle of events we are caught in.
The first and most obvious one is the overt criticism of the military. It began partially with the PDM and Nawaz Sharif’s speeches, which targeted the powers that be, to the discomfort of many. Now Imran Khan and the PTI have taken it further. Despite their deliberate effort to keep their attacks slightly vague, the target seems more rattled. Perhaps, this is because the criticism has now become more widespread than just political leaders and has enveloped the public. It is worth considering that regardless of whichever of the two parties (which dominate Punjab) is in power, the other may be compelled to continue with this rhetoric. And since 2018, this criticism is now finding some fertile ground as well.
Despite the old script that has played out in front of us, political events do indicate some changes.
At the moment, this is destabilising, especially as no institution is now seen to be above the political fray, but it also leads one to hope that over time it can lead to a political culture where overt meddling and even arbitration, which is seen as legitimate at the moment, is frowned upon. This opportunistic criticism needs to evolve into a principled position — for it should not take long to figure out that intervention only works to the advantage of one player or the other, and hence, the only long-term solution is genuine neutrality. If nothing else, at least we have taken a step forward.
Second, linked with this is another positive aspect of the present crisis — the question of why PTI was not allowed to maintain its majority in parliament as did the PML-N and PPP. While we have, sadly, not let prime ministers complete their terms, post-2008 at least the same parties nominated new prime ministers and governments, which was an improvement on the 1990s. Now we seem to have rewound to the past. But in the past few weeks, it is not just journalists — kudos to Mazhar Abbas who keeps bringing this up — but also ordinary citizens who have asked why governments are not allowed their full term. This is a change from a time when rarely anyone questioned the abrupt sacking of governments.
This awareness about the importance of transitions and unwritten rules of politics is necessary to address the dysfunctionality in our politics. One can only hope that political players learn to value this for their own good as well as the stability of the system.
Third is the critical economic situation. Since 2018, our growing debt burden, the IMF programme, FATF and the conditionalities linked to the latter two are the focus of discussions day in and day out. Such discussions and debates were rare in 2008 and 2013. This is not just because of the political polarisation but also the deteriorating economic conditions, forcing us all to pay attention to issues such as taxes, current account deficit, unproductive sectors’ growth and structural reforms.
Economists and businessmen have become familiar faces on television and probable and incumbent finance ministers are just as important as those who hold forth on their party’s politics. Indeed, finance ministers past and present get more flak than even former prime ministers in political commentary. This is not just about the larger awareness but also the pressure on the political elite to make the right decision, rather than the easier decision, politically.
This is unusual and not something which had been witnessed earlier. Hopefully, this will now push our parties and others (the others are rather important here) in the right direction, as far as the economy is concerned. Though admittedly, both the PTI and the PML-N have gone out of their way to prove this wrong since March!
The fourth point is linked to the third but is an issue which has so far not received the attention it deserves. In fact, it continues to be stuck in the Groundhog Day phenomenon. We really need to be more honest about our foreign policy, which has been aimed at extracting foreign loans for our geopolitical position. But in the recent past (and briefly in the 1990s) this geopolitical position is now becoming irrelevant and the loans seem to be drying up.
Coupled with the dire economic situation, there is now constant whining about who and which government or institution led to our isolation in the world. But this lament is less about the isolation and more about the financial windfalls coming our way, which let us continue our profligate habits. Hence, it is time we recognised that the problem is not the ‘isolation’ as we see it but the easy money. And that the way out of this is to focus on the economy and not try for foreign policy ‘miracles’ in the shape of windfalls (why else would the recognition of Israel keep propping up because some see it as another windfall?). It is only when we are willing to accept this that we’ll be able to ensure the changes highlighted here take us in the right direction, rather than towards further chaos. But all this entails hard choices, for the rulers as well as the ruled.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2022