The unravelling

18 Aug 2011


AFTER a while, it’s all just noise.

Zardari crowing, Sharif yelping, generals bleating, judges barking, anchors shrieking — what does it matter anymore?

Zardari wanted to divide Punjab to pick up votes, but ended up dividing Sindh and lost votes. His advisers have shot him in the foot, the party has taken one in the gut and people are still dying in Karachi. Politics: the art of the possible.

Sharif wants immediate elections; he also wants to support the system and wait his turn. He wants to normalise relations with India, but standing in the way is an enquiry into Kargil. He wants to rescue Pakistan’s economy and will start by handing out yellow cabs and keys to newly built homes. Cause, y’know, the coffers are full. Politics — the bailiwick of the amateur.

The generals are stamping their feet and drawing all sorts of lines in the sand with the Americans. We won’t hand over the fake-polio-campaign doctor of the OBL/Abbottabad fame and tell us where all your CIA spies are and what are they up to, the generals yell. Meanwhile, they haven’t a clue how to wage a counter-insurgency beyond squeezing the ever-growing balloon of militancy.

The judges seem to think there are just two cases in this great land of ours. NICL, Hajj, NICL, Hajj. Occasionally, they remember a third: NAB. The lord said, let there be a free judiciary: and there was a free judiciary. And the lord saw that a free judiciary was good. Amen.

Anchors are seizing on it all, flogging the machinations to shore up flagging ratings. Anything will be discussed, anything is fair game, as long as it doesn’t add up to informed or meaningful debate. Informed, meaningful debate isn’t good for ratings.

And on and on it goes. The country is unravelling, crises are proliferating, the feeling of gloom is widening, the sense of foreboding is deepening — and yet the jokers who are supposed to be running this place and the other jokers who are supposed to hold the first set of jokers accountable are continuing with their joking.

It’s not even like the public is looking for a saviour or legendary statesman. The quality of the leadership available won’t be transformed overnight and you don’t need a college degree to figure that out.

Pygmy generals, loathsome politicians, judges who wouldn’t pass the bar in more advanced nations, bureaucrats who are more Jell-O than steel frame — that’s what we’ve got and that’s what we’ll have to make do with for now.

The problem isn’t that you can’t rescue a state and nation from inexorable decline with a very ordinary leadership; human, flawed, of limited capabilities and with a poverty of imagination.

The problem is that our very flawed, very ordinary leadership isn’t even trying.

If an ordinary, flawed leadership is to prevail — or at least survive — against the problems that beset Pakistan, you need at least one thing: a minimum national narrative, a consensus on a barebones agenda that has some likelihood of stemming the rot, or reversing the tide.

Forget the pabulum of transforming Pakistan into an Asian tiger in quick order or about engineering a welfare state that can meaningfully look after all the poor within a decade or two. A minimum agenda would have focused on stabilising two fronts: the economy and security.

But our jokers can’t even get that right. On the economy, Zardari thought the outside world would bail out Pakistan because we’re too big too fail. Turns out there is no real appetite anywhere to bail us out. Uh-oh, now what? Now nothing.Zardari and his economic wizards have no Plan B. They’ll just buy as much time as they can and hope desperately that things don’t fall apart on their watch.

The generals, meanwhile, lambaste the government for its epic incompetence and corruption, arguing that at least the manageable bits of the domestic economy could have been stabilised. Speak to any economist, though, and he’ll tell you that a sure-fire route to growth is trading with your neighbours. But the generals will have none of that when it comes to India, the mother of all markets for Pakistani traders and manufacturers. Y’know, honour and dignity versus prosperity and all of that other meaningless stuff.

So the politicians are looking abroad based on faulty assumptions, while the generals are looking at home based on flawed economic analysis. The only surprise is that we, you and me, the public at large, aren’t screwed more than we already are.And let’s not even get into the mess that is Pakistan’s internal security situation. The generals still cling to their India-centricness and the politicians don’t even pretend to be thinking about countering militancy: the generals are part of the problem; the politicians refuse to be part of the solution.

Worse is what’s almost certain to come next. Disillusioned and dejected, the electorate is likely to return an even more fractured parliament. That will be a recipe for even more paralysis just when more decisiveness will be needed to deal with the mess of five years of drift on top of nine years of misdirection.

So next time you hear a politician yap or a general bleat or a judge bark or an anchor shriek, do yourself a favour and switch off the TV or turn the page. There’s plenty more of it to come.

Oh, and find yourself a sturdy desk to hide under. For when the unravelling comes.

The writer is a member of staff.