Incomplete victories

Published November 14, 2023
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN a recent interaction, someone commented that none of the political parties had any plans to fix the economy. This is a common refrain; many of us — democratically aligned as well as those who think elections will provide no solution — feel the civilians are simply not prepared or equipped for governance.

Idealistic people expect better from the politicians they support but feel the latter never appear serious about governance or have a clue about the economy. So goes the commonly held belief. Not entirely wrong, but it is worth considering what the world or politics looks like from the perspective of the political parties and their leaders.

The election cycle itself is not one dependent on clear paths forward, policy options and manifestos, as textbooks may argue. Here, in this land, elections are about maqbooliyat (popularity) and qubooliyat (acceptance). Manifestos and policies are part of elections in societies with a degree of normalcy, which is hardly the description of affairs at home.

Here, it seems as if all our main players are deeply flawed characters stuck like García Marquez’s patriarch in a state of isolation and paranoia.

The time in power is spent simply fighting to stay in power.

Try and walk a few steps in the shoes of Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan.

For the former, chances are his days and nights might be consumed by what the immediate future may hold for him despite the laadla (favourite) tag. Will he contest the election?

Will the eligibility stand or will the disqualification? What if the powers that be prefer his younger brother, as everyone in the country is whispering? What if he wins the election for the party, only to be deprived of the major slot at the last moment? Does his brother know of this plan, while proclaiming the party’s prime minister is Nawaz Sharif? How many of his own party men (and women) are aware of this last-minute switcheroo?

Even if these hushed whispers do not consume him, he is perhaps wondering about the election, the party’s weak position in its stronghold of Punjab and what an electoral victory would look like without any external help.

His nemesis, on the other hand, is perhaps struggling similarly, though the challenges appear to be different. A man who has survived an attack and was obsessed with the idea of another one, if the manner in which he appeared in the courts in the months before his arrest is any indication. For him, it was a battle for survival, literally.

And if he has been able to get over the idea of a threat to his life, he would be obsessed with winning the next election, despite heading the most popular party in the country and the crackdown on its people. Would he ever be released? Would his party be allowed to take part in the election?

Will those who contest the election with his party’s ticket stay loyal to him or would they switch sides? Who would be the next to turn on him and blame him for May 9 or corruption?

Asif Ali Zardari would perhaps not be far away. This is the second election in a row where the country is awash with rumours of plans to limit the PPP’s victory in Sindh. And despite their assertions to the contrary, the party and its leader are bound to be worried and trying for a deal.

In this battle of desires and survival, plans for economic revival must await the first battle — the battle of being.

Where would the economy find space in this? It is akin to expecting a daily wager to have a savings plan.

In Islamabad, stories of politicians’ disinterest in the economy abound. In one such account, excited men went to visit one of these beleaguered men, offered to join hands with him and then asked about the plans for the economy.

He said, he would get back to them, once he makes it to the other side, the side where survival is no longer at stake. They returned disappointed, but in the account of that short interaction there is so much to understand about our politics, if one is interested.

In these mediaeval jousts which pass for politics and democracy in Pakistan, the fighting never ends. Especially for the politicians but neither for the others including the bureaucracy which gets caught up in the maelstrom.

But the battles don’t end with the election cycle either. Seldom have those who won an election, difficult or easy, been able to focus on governance. Instead, the time in power is spent simply fighting to stay in power. There is little energy left for the people and their problems.

At times it reminds one of the all-consuming fight the Mughal heirs had to take part in, once the reigning emperor grew old and weak. A fight to death would ensure who would be the victor among the various heirs; and his victory would not be complete till all his rivals would be killed or rendered useless. Only then would the empire and the rule be secure. But the kingdom in Islamabad is never secure, for no victory here is ever complete and neither is any defeat. The challenges never end. And this consumes all the energies which should have been spent on the people’s welfare.

This perhaps is our greatest crisis, rather than assuming it is our politicians’ inherently corrupt nature or obsession with accountability of the other. For the civilians, especially, this is once again linked to this constant state of besiegement and battle. And this is a state of affairs inherently contradictory to the demands of running a modern economy. It is not possible to carry both these worlds along.

Postscript: Consider that in Pakistan, politics is once again being analysed through phrases once made popular in the times of Bhutto. Our misfortune is that 50 years later, we think our choices are the ones that once faced Bhutto and Zia.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2023

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