Controlled chaos? Think not

Published February 18, 2024
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

HOPES of clarity after the Feb 8 elections have evaporated and a country, perennially in the midst of a crisis, now appears gripped by chaos and in a tailspin, with the wildest of speculation suddenly acquiring an eminently plausible status. That is where we are.

From the usually informed journalists and analysts to the wildly swinging vloggers, everyone is clueless. Truly so. Even more, columnists such as this one. Would you stop reading if I own up to not having any inside information? Perhaps you might, and that’s a risk I have to take in being honest.

What I do know, and you too, is that Pakistan has had endless experiments with military rule or, more accurately, has had endless experiments conducted by military rulers: from Ayub Khan’s martial law to Basic Democracies to Ziaul Haq’s outright military rule and then an attempted civilianisation of that via a partyless election which produced a party-run parliament.

And, more recently, the general-chief executive whose martial law was cloaked in civvies but he wielded absolute power from the centre of his empire in Rawalpindi. At some point or the other, each of these military rulers has suffered from a crisis of legitimacy and tried to hide behind a civilian façade. But, as a number of elections in different eras have demonstrated, the people have always had other ideas.

Endless political engineering experiments will always result in some undesirable mutations.

On the other hand, rather than strengthen whatever little democracy we have had, the democrats, who are supposed to be its guardians, have turned for help to forces inimical to democracy. Inimical because it challenges and undermines their primacy in decision-making and, more importantly, in resource allocation exercises.

Such endless political engineering experiments will always result in some undesirable mutations too. What makes one feel awful is that in a country of some 240 million people, an unacceptably large chunk of which lives below the poverty line, it is the shirtless who will end up bearing the brunt of the fallout.

For those who truly believe in liberal, democratic values and norms, it may me be difficult to digest but, after the failure of both outright and brazen military rule and politically-engineered hybrid set-ups, the inevitability of civilian-led authoritarianism or our version of fascism stares us in the face.

I’d be happy to say, for once, what we have is controlled chaos aimed at crisis management, but it does not appear that way, does it? The control over the ‘narrative’ has been lost. Daily revelations from those long acknowledged as democrats with ties to non-democrats, to civil servants whose ‘conscience’ has suddenly awakened (but not sufficiently to point to the elephant in the room) is also symptomatic of friction within, if not a breakdown.

This is where we are. So, what is the way forward, if there is one, at all? Well, given the utter chaos in which we find ourselves, the path ahead looks neither mapped nor clear. It is equally true that the country and the people are being pulled in different directions.

Indeed, the media is to blame for some of the hysteria we are witnessing today, but it is not guilty of triggering or generating it. Admittedly, with demands of the 24x7 rolling news formats, the media may be contributing to the madness by highlighting the chaos on a loop, but it isn’t creating it.

If a commentator like me suggests the only way forward that is viable, sustainable and workable with the capacity to deliver stability, I can be certain many friends and foes alike will accuse of me being utopian, divorced from the real world around us.

You know what? It is rather late in life for me to change. So here it is. The only sane way forward, like my good friend Umar Aftab suggested on social media, is to have a genuine and credible truth and reconciliation process, modelled after the Bishop Desmond Tutu-led South African exercise.

There is no other way. All parties, civilian or otherwise, who consider themselves players or contenders in the power game being played in the country today can either move towards such a process, or stay adamant in remaining where they are.

The only thing I can say with certainty is that the status quo guarantees mutually assured destruction. Not of the Cold War type, of course, but with broadly similar consequences for the power aspirants. There will be no spoils after this war is over; only losers.

And among the various power players in this blighted land of ours, the biggest burden will again fall on those who claim the mantle of democrats for themselves. The process needs to be initiated and initiated now in earnest, and needs to be steered by those in the country who remain credible, trustworthy and non-controversial.

Edhi may not be among us anymore, but there are others. If you ask me, I can count a dozen people, at least, if not more. I am sure, so can you. In fact, each one of us can draw up our own list. I know suggesting a truth and reconciliation exercise in such a wounded, fragmented society isn’t utopia.

I also know that expecting both our power-hungry or perpetually power-drunk, often ego-driven narcissistic players to sit around a table while keeping in sharp focus the faces, the aspirations, of the millions of those struggling to feed their children and send them to school, will indeed be utopianism.

At this stage, the best likely outcome one can visualise is this rot lasting for another 12, possibly 18 months. What then? The power players don’t care. You and I don’t count.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2024

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