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Doomsday delayed

July 29, 2012

THEY huffed and they puffed, and still the house stands. For now.

Intra-court wrangling isn’t for outsiders to see. But if we can’t see, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. The moderates and the hardliners have been fighting this battle for a while.

Seven justices convicted Gilani for contempt, but left open the question of disqualification. Three justices summarily dispatched the PM when they had had enough and the circus threatened to get out of control.

So the respite for Raja Rental, and possibly the government and the system itself, may be just that: a very temporary lull.

And yet. Could the consternation and anger directed at the court have strengthened the moderates and spooked the hardliners enough to clear the path to an on-schedule election?

That the rumour mill has turned its attention away from an undemocratic caretaker set-up to the government allegedly contemplating extending parliament’s term to get Zardari elected next September says much about the endless appetite for political machinations here — and also the head-spinning ability of conspiracy theorists to seamlessly switch from one improbable to the opposite improbable in a matter of days.

Given the choice between the powers-that-be green-lighting yet another return to unelected rule and the civilians trying to game the system, I’d take the latter — it being easier to slap down Zardari and his improbable dreams than killing off the dreams of yet more would-be saviours.

Still, there may be a reason why the air is quickly escaping from the idea of a care-taker set-up: there are perhaps, when push comes to shove, no serious takers for it.

In days past, when the puppet master pulled the strings, the puppets danced and bobbed to the tune he set, and everyone else knew that the wheels had inexorably begun to turn.

This time, there is a sense that the puppets themselves — the ones who yearn to help remake Pakistan in the image of themselves and their masters — were the ones jerking and pulling at the strings, in the hope that the puppet master would hear their pleas and decide to scrap the messy democratic system for a cleaner set-up that will steer Pakistan out of the vortex it has been sucked into.

With the court looking like it may be willing to lead the charge, the anticipation and excitement grew.

But locating the future direction of Pakistani politics at the intersection of law and politics is perhaps not where the answer lies.

Even a transformative court needs a partner, silent or active. There is only one candidate for that: the army-led establishment.

The theories are well-known and tired: Gen K is a lame duck; much as the generals loathe Zardari, he’s someone they can do business with; the army has figured out it doesn’t have the answers; or just that with everyone suckling at the teats of the Pakistani state, no one is really interested in picking up a weapon and declaring war.

Scratch around for an answer — a meaningful, meaty, satisfying one — and you come closer to another theory: collapse, a spectacular, doomsday implosion, is not as imminent as many feared, and as long as that remains the case, the incentive to do something dramatic isn’t strong enough.

Instead of the intersection of politics and the law, perhaps it’s at the intersection of the economy and politics that the answer to inaction lies.

Jeopardise the purse strings and imperil lucre, and it has a way of concentrating the mind and casting aside doubts to do whatever it takes to protect perk and privilege.

Say the PPP’s economic mismanagement threatens the army budget or takes the country to the brink of default and international economic isolation or fashions a meltdown in urban Pakistan.

Now that would concentrate the mind in a way not much else would — or at least in a way the shenanigans and general misrule of the PPP doesn’t.

But for all its extractive politics and economics, the PPP has somehow presided over a system that won’t collapse. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer; yet another generation has been lost to poverty and illiteracy; the state’s finances are wilting — but collapse isn’t imminent.

And that may be the difference between an intervention and none.

What is happening is terrible enough for the average Pakistani. For those who benefit from the transfer of wealth from urban to rural Pakistan — in the form of subsidies to the agri economy — and then from the feedback into urban Pakistan — in the form of all the goods and services rural residents, who save little, are spending lavishly on — the system is working. For everyone else, it’s tough luck and stale bread.

Would-be saviours want to save Pakistan and Pakistanis. But, first and foremost, they want to save themselves.

What Zardari has presided over is a growing systemic dysfunctionality, yes; but for the other power players, up to their elbows in the networks of patronage and pelf, he hasn’t yet jeopardised their income, wealth or power.

So take over or sponsor a takeover for what?

Look around. Is there a Zia who wants to rewire the fabric of the Pakistani state and society on the scene? Is there a Musharraf or a CJ Iftikhar whose jobs are on the line and have been pushed into an us-or-them decision?

There are just small men with small aspirations, content to secure their turf.

Should we be thankful? Perhaps yes.

The democratic process can limp on and who knows, maybe somewhere down the road average Pakistanis will wrest away from the predators who surround them what is their right: their country and their future.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm