The selfish state

October 14, 2011

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CRISES erupt, the government fire-fights, things settle back down: we’ve seen it a million times before, right?

At least that’s what logic traced on the historical record suggests. It’s always been the same, always will be the same. The unofficial motto of Pakistan is, onwards to the next crisis.

And yet, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that maybe, just maybe, something different is afoot.

The possibility of an Arab Spring breaking out in Pakistan has been pooh-poohed: Pakistanis are reasonably adept at knocking out of power dictators and civilians alike.

If you want Zardari out, a crowd of 10,000 converging on Constitution Avenue will have him scrambling to catch the next flight to Dubai. If you want Kayani gone, it would be more complicated and messier, but not as titanic as toppling a Mubarak or Qadhafi.

The possibility of an electoral revolution has been downplayed: the latest would-be saviour, Imran Khan, looks set to grab some seats, but lacks the candidates and party apparatus to make sweeping gains. The status-quo political powers will prevail come election time, or at least so says conventional wisdom.

The possibility of an Islamist takeover has been dismissed: the state is still too strong, the army too numerous for it to crumble against a militant force that all told may be a few tens of thousands strong.

The possibility of an Iran-style clergy-led revolution appears to be remote: among the ideologues in the religious parties and the militant corps none has the broad-based charismatic appeal that can carry them to national power.

But what do we really know about the preferences of the Pakistani people?

Conventional wisdom has it that the people want democracy to continue, they don’t want the army back. But the last time that theory was tested, a mere 35 million people turned out to vote in 2008. What did the other 130 million want?

Remove kids aged 14 and below from the scope of political action, and you’re still left with 80-odd million people whose opinion we know little about. Are they just indifferent to democracy, at least Pakistan’s version of it, or are they a combustible mixture waiting for the right catalyst to be poured on?

The PPP and the PML-N are Pakistan’s two most popular political parties. Power will always belong to one of them, so says conventional wisdom again.

Turn once more to the 2008 elections and you’ll see that the PPP got ten and a half million votes, the PML-N nearly eight million. That’s a whole bunch more than zero — which our latest populist got after opting out of the election — and the handful that the mullah brigade picked up.

Still, the notion that Pakistani politics is about constituency, constituency, constituency is undercut by the results of the last two elections. In ’08, the electorate singled out Musharraf’s men for punishment; in ’02, the American arrival in Afghanistan powered the MMA to wins in Balochistan and then-NWFP.

With the right message, and the right timing, a few millions votes could be bagged, enough to bestow the sparkling newcomer with kingmaker status in the next parliament.

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a politician as we know them. A right-wing ideologue could ride the wave of crazed religiosity that a Mumtaz Qadri-type act can unleash. Or maybe the next Lal Masjid-style firebrand will decide that the possibility of a temporal kingdom is more tempting than certain rewards in the hereafter.

The surge doesn’t even have to come through the ballot box. Thus far the Baitullahs and Hakeemullahs and Faqir Mohammads have, much to the luck of the rest of us, thought small not big.

They have just wanted their little fiefdoms, their small platoons of suicide bombers, a bite here, a morsel there. And they haven’t exactly been the sharpest pencils in the militant box. Fear the day one of those kookie guys marries grand ambition to ruthless political skill.

And why must it come from the civilian corner?

The army rank and file is disciplined and won’t en masse act on any crazy ideas, says conventional wisdom. But what about the top? It’s pretty well established that some pretty nutty men have made their way into the inner circle in the past.As for the rank and filers tucked away in their orderly cantonments, who’s to say what they’re really thinking about and talking over among themselves. Rural and urban Pakistan have not stood still over the last 30 years, so why must the products of those societies be what they have always been, docile and disciplined?

Whether any of these possibilities — or other possibilities that haven’t really been thought about — will ever come to pass is impossible to predict.

Easier is to identify the core reason for the unease spreading about the future of this country: the state has become its own raison d’être. The Pakistani state no longer exists to try and improve the lives of the people who live within it; it exists to feed and perpetuate itself.

Really, what policy of the army hews to the public’s demand, recorded in poll after poll, election after election, for better delivery of basic services, for jobs, for economic well-being? Security or prosperity is a false choice, manifold times so when the policy of putting security first has made Pakistan one of the least secure countries in the world.

And what’s the point of a transition to democracy when the choices made by a civilian set-up simply nudge the country a little closer to the edge of a cliff?

When a state exists to tend to its own needs to the almost-total exclusion of the public’s dreams and aspirations, it will eventually become a nightmare for everyone involved.

The only thing we don’t know yet: what kind of nightmare exactly.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com