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A bad movie plot

June 23, 2012

ANOTHER day, another crisis in Pakistan. What else is new? Given the roller-coaster ride we have been on these last few years, nothing has the power to surprise or shock anymore.

Even the fact that a warrant for the arrest of Makhdoom Shahabuddin has been issued just as he was filing his nomination papers for election to the prime ministership causes a big yawn.

If a screenwriter had crafted the script we have been following, a movie producer would have rejected it for being too unbelievable. The whole business about a tycoon bankrolling a series of multimillion dollar holidays for the chief justice’s son and his family is bizarre enough. But in a swift counterstroke, the prime minister is dismissed by the top judge, pushing his son’s scandal into the background.

And if this sequence of events wasn’t too farfetched, our screenwriter also invents the leaked footage of two popular TV anchors pandering to the same businessman during an advertising break. The entire sick-making conversation is then aired by a rival channel. As if the allegations of corruption among the media that never tires of assailing the political class for venality wasn’t bad enough, a list of journalists alleged to be on the take from the same tycoon makes the rounds.

I mean, give me a break! Who could possibly believe this stuff? And while these dark deeds are gripping our interest and consuming all our waking hours, other dangers are threatening the country’s very foundations. Unfortunately, our courts, government and the media are too preoccupied with the many ‘gates’ that have opened up to pay any attention to other issues.

We seem to have forgotten that violent insurgencies bordering on civil war are raging in Balochistan and large parts of our tribal areas. Indeed, the Taliban have forbidden polio immunisation in Waziristan; so weak is the writ of the state that it cannot ensure that children in the area will be given these crucial polio vaccines.

In Punjab, thousands of people, driven to desperation by up to 22 hours of power cuts in 40-plus degrees of heat, have gone on the rampage. In over four years, this government has been unable to sort out this problem. In Karachi, nearly 800 people have been killed so far this year, with no respite to this bloodletting in sight.

The rupee continues its slide against the dollar, and the economy is in a tailspin. We are about to go back to the IMF, begging bowl in hand, to ask for yet another bailout package. Meanwhile, we remain at loggerheads with the US, our biggest aid donor, over a spat caused by the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers last November. But in truth, our sulk is over the fact that American commandos entered our airspace and killed Osama bin Laden without informing us.

Against this backdrop of pressing problems, what do our major state institutions do? They engage in a destructive fight in which the prime minister is sacrificed, and his successor might be forced to walk the same plank. In the old days, it used to be virgins who would be offered to the gods; now, prime ministers are slaughtered at the altar of justice.

Would any audience ever swallow this stuff? No, seriously, if I were a movie producer, I would discard this junk as unusable and tell the screenwriter to start again from scratch. Abroad, events in Pakistan are followed with bewilderment and scarcely concealed amusement: how can any state calling itself a democracy shoot itself in the foot so many times and still hobble around?

In Islamabad, the biggest junction is called Zero Point. I would have thought that this grid reference would be replaced with the name of a great Pakistani. Sadly, we seem to be very low on heroes. Who among the current or recent crop of leaders would we want to name roads or public spaces after? Kayani-abad? Zardari Nagar? Musharraf Colony?

When the hapless Gilani was unceremoniously turfed out, it was hoped he would soon be replaced to avoid a prolonged power vacuum. But in reality, the poor man had very little power, and so did not leave a very large vacuum: squeezed between the president, the army chief and the chief justice, to say nothing of a slavering media pack, Gilani must be glad to be back home in Multan. His sons, however, may not feel the same way.

When power is not exercised effectively, it has a habit of slipping away to other centres. Thus, when this government chose to focus only on completing its term, and not rocking the boat, it saw its authority seep away. Zardari stays in his bunker, and ministers are too busy making hay while the sun shines to bother about boring stuff like education, energy and health.

It is this larger vacuum that has been filled by other players. From opposition parties to extremists to street mobs, groups with their own agendas are challenging the writ of the state. More entrenched institutions appear to be pushing their own agenda — and it has nothing to do with providing justice to ordinary Pakistanis.

The army has always enjoyed vast powers, and it doesn’t need to stage a coup because it faces a supine civilian government. The media is the uninvited guest at the high table, and is behaving like an uncouth gatecrasher.

When so many power centres are tugging in different directions, it’s no wonder nothing ever gets done. Foreign governments complain they don’t know who to talk to about security matters: the president, the army chief or the prime minister? Answer: all of the above. But nothing gets resolved because none of them wants to take a decision.

And when the pressure mounts, the easiest thing is to kick the ball into the high grass of parliament. Here, responsibility (and blame) can be widely dispersed.

So when the next prime minister is duly sworn in, and ordered by the Supreme Court to write to the Swiss government to force it to reopen the money-laundering case against Zardari it had dropped four years ago, what then? Well, then we may have the sequel ‘Return of the Judiciary’. So perhaps there is a movie here after all…

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@gmail.com