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An hourglass society

Published Mar 19, 2012 11:35pm

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POLITICS in Pakistan operates at two thinly connected levels representing a non-delivering ruling mechanism at one end, and perennially and potentially protesting masses at the other.

Pakistan can be viewed as an hourglass society. As an instrument for measuring time used in the late mediaeval ages, it had two separate halves connected by a narrow tube. The sand passed from the top to the bottom in one hour. Later, the glass was turned over for the next round of the falling sand. Two characteristics defined the hourglass. It had a narrow link between the two spaces and it was a top-down rather than a bottom-up mechanism.

High politics in Pakistan is characterised by an internecine conflict among rival contenders for power — the army, judiciary, mainstream and ethnic parties, Islamic and sectarian groups, the intelligence agencies and bureaucracy.

The arena is relatively shielded from the masses clamouring for justice down below. The idiom of this conflict includes national interest, security, sovereignty, independence of the judiciary and media, Sunni majoritarian supremacy and the clash of institutions. It draws on a long list of perceived evil characters, countries such as the US, Israel and India, potentially blasphemous religious communities such as Christians and Hindus and corrupt elements such as political parties and political leaders.

One can point to three generations of protagonists of the power play on stage. The first so-called Independence generation included Iskandar Mirza, Ayub Khan, Daultana, Suhrawardy, Maududi, Bhashani, Ghaffar Khan and G. M. Syed in the 1950s and 1960s. The second generation included Bhutto, Wali Khan, Mufti Mehmud and the Bugti-Marri-Mengal triumvirate in the 1970 and 1980s.

The third generation comprised Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Altaf Hussain and the siblings of the great Khans and the Baloch in the 1990s and 2000s. Imran Khan from this generation is trying to capture the youth’s immense potential across the generational divide. He has crystallised the idiom of the upper half of the hourglass in terms of corruption, Islam, national sovereignty, Kashmir, anti-Americanism and anti-Indianism.

This is a zero-sum game, within the upper echelons. One’s gain is the other’s loss.

The Abbottabad operation brought grief to the army. The civilian component of the ruling elite smiled. Memogate inflicted pain on President Zardari and the top brass smiled. Mian Nawaz Sharif filed a case in court in this regard, and smiled. Following allegations about preparations for a coup after Abbottabad hurt the men in uniform, the prime minister smiled. The rejuvenated NRO case turned the civilian hierarchy of the government upside down. It was noted by some that the judiciary smiled.

Mehrangate heaped scorn on the ISI, president Ishaq Khan, Gen Aslam Beg and Gen Asad Durrani among others. President Zardari and the prime minister smiled. The news item about the disappearance of a large sum of money from Intelligence Bureau funds on the eve of the no-confidence vote against Benazir Bhutto in 1989 has dampened the spirit of the treasury benches. Whoever dug up this information from the official files smiled. The judiciary picked it up.

The musical chairs go on. The new name of the game for the government is survival in office. The opposition is committed to making that as unlikely as possible. The court talks about the law, about crime and punishment, and about right and wrong. It appears to be thinking and operating retrospectively, not prospectively. The verdicts do not seem to consider the fallout on the mega currents of public life.

Smugness, self-righteousness, claiming the moral high ground and confidence in one’s power and ability have adversely affected the structural and operational dynamics of various institutions and groups in the country.

The bottom half of the hourglass represents the people. The celebrated political scientist Bhabani Sen Gupta quipped in one of his cynical moments 20 years ago that the Indian system had put one-third of society — the poorest and the destitute — behind the curtain and that it became marginal to the national agenda. That may be less true of India than Pakistan. Who are the wretched of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? How many are they? And for how many of them is there realistic hope of deliverance from misery?

In Pakistan, people — the destitute particularly — are not visible on the national agenda, apart from such projects as the Benazir Income Support Programme. Sixty-five million Pakistanis, three times the population of Afghanistan and 10 times the population of Jordan see the death of hope.

They live through economic, psychological and physical insecurity. They are living because they are not dead. Their marginal position has been institutionalised through street demonstrations and political rallies that turn them into cannon fodder. People on the street are fast multiplying. A large mass of humanity is suffering because of malnutrition, ignorance and belligerent identities. The virtual abandoning of the population planning programme is a step towards pushing social thought and practice back to the mediaeval ages.

With shrinking market space both at home and globally, the teeming millions of Pakistan have no relevance for the state managers’ agenda. One finds depression, sullenness, fatalism, superstition, acute cynicism and a general lack of productivity among the masses.

There is a rampant sense of injustice at the hands of the police, magistracy and the local judiciary. Police brutality, corruption, extrajudicial killings and torture within and outside the jails are common. The district court is the handmaiden of local people with influence. Some proto-Taliban and sectarian groups operate as instruments of state patronage and manipulation.

The people at the bottom have not been able to exert pressure upwards to change policy, given the weakness of multiple institutional channels including trade unions, professional associations, student organisations, minorities’ forums, literary guilds and lobbies for the missing persons.

The hourglass society is operative in two separate spheres of activity, even as the traditional and emergent leadership swears by its concern for the masses and the latter pin their hopes on the messiahs.

The writer is a professor at LUMS.

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Comments (4) Closed



Bilal Hussain Mar 20, 2012 11:00am
Excellent analysis! Ordinary Pakistani has been left out from the pillars of power since the day of independence and the trend has only gained strength. Faces change but the policies remain within the same sphere. We move around a mulberry bush and remain silent spectators to our fate being determined by a few families who run the show in the most inappropriate manner. Imran Khan (banking upon the youth) the real hope for the much needed "CHANGE"? He has been talking about bringing the “CHANGE” but with whom? The same old faces that are joining him left, right and center? I am in serious doubt. In any event, congratulations to the author.
Falcon Mar 21, 2012 01:21am
First of all I agree what you have described is a sad reality. But I must also say that this much realism is drenched in pessimism, which is one unhealthy way of looking at the reality. Lastly, I think your characterization of IK is slightly off the mark, he was never anti-India. He is of the few politicians to have openly expressed that we should have no militancy operating from our country and the issue of Kashmir should be pursued politically so that we can move away from weapons to books on both sides of the border.
Outsider Mar 27, 2012 10:39pm
Amazing article... Professor Waseem is a brilliant scholar. His ability to give a bird's eye view and present a holistic picture with such simplicity, making comprehension easy for an untutored & uninformed mind speaks volumes about his intellect.. I wish people like him could join politics. With every article of his he adds yet another feather to his hat.. Stay young sir
Zaheer Ud Din Aug 16, 2012 05:12am
A very comprehensive and crystle analysis by Dr. Waseem.