THERE’S been a lot of outrage in Pakistan the past week.
The self-appointed custodians of the national interest have been outraged at the temerity of the self-appointed custodians of the constitution and the petulance of the self-appointed custodians of the public interest.
The self-appointed custodians of the constitution have been shocked that anyone could upbraid them for upholding the constitution without fear or favour.
And the self-appointed custodians of the public interest — those paragons of virtue who hector and lecture and preach from their televised bully pulpits each evening — cannot believe anyone could question their motives or intentions.
There is a word to describe it all, but it’s probably best not printed in a family newspaper.
What does it all mean?
It’s a strange world in which everyone is clamouring to be the target of an army chief’s wrath.
In eras past, a sidelong glance or a misspoken sentence by the chief would have had folks preparing their resignation letters or reaching for their passports.
He meant me! No, he meant us! No, no, we were the targets!
The ostensible targets are squabbling over who was the main target.
Rule No 1: when folks argue over who was the primary target, look elsewhere for the primary target.
The army high command has two principal constituencies: the rank and file and the public at large.
In the best of worlds, both can be kept happy simultaneously. In the not-so-elegant Pakistani universe, keeping both happy simultaneously isn’t always possible.
The armed forces are restless. They are being barracked and shellacked like never before. If the army were running the show directly, they would understand to some extent. If the army were overtly interfering in politics, they’d take it on the chin.
But it’s a new world out there. The old order is crumbling, the locus of power is shifting and the army is feeling harassed and aggrieved. They’re just trying to do their job — defend Pakistan — but no one seems to understand.
Steps up the chief to reassure his skittish tribe. I’m here, I’m on your side, I’ll stand up for all that is great and good, i.e. us.
If that means a swipe or two against other institutions and pillars, so be it. To the skittish armed forces, swipes against others are the kind of red meat they crave.
Talk tough and you look tough, and looking tough is hardwired into the military psyche.
But that’s also why everyone else has almost gleefully leapt on the chief’s words and claimed they were meant for them.
For words are not actions and without actions, everyone else senses impotence.
Show us what you’ve got, the media has taunted and the court has almost roared, guessing that blanks were fired to please the army’s principal constituency.
More curious has been the PPP’s response, of which two distinct strands were discernible the past week.
One camp argued the party had been kept in the loop by the chief, a signal that this wasn’t about the PPP and the government but about the robes and the preachers on TV.
There was almost smug elation in this camp, like schoolyard victims who’ve discovered the big, bad bullies have turned on each other and left the victims to walk off with the prom queen, in this case a clearer path to re-election.
When your enemies fight among themselves, they’re less likely to see you as the enemy.
The other camp was eyeing Balochistan warily, sensing a dry run there for bigger things on the national stage.
The sparring between the army and the court is a sideshow, according to this PPP camp. Instead, the Balochistan template is seen emerging:
Army keeps security situation messy by eschewing the political for a military approach; court pounces on mess to declare government has lost its writ; next step: wrap up government and install an efficient and establishment-friendly government.
Take the testing of the judicial waters in Balochistan and magnify it to the national level and you end up with that rumour that just won’t die: an extended caretaker set-up, with elections postponed.
Convoluted? You bet.
But it hints at the undercurrents everyone knows exist, though few know which direction they’re pulling in.
Elections have a way of unsettling everyone here. Last year, around this time, the Senate elections were on the horizon and the speculation and rumours began to grow.
Somehow, somewhere, something would happen to prevent the Senate elections from being held on schedule.
If the Senate was a prize worth winning — or, conversely, denying — and hence the speculation and uncertainty in the run-up to the Senate elections, a general election is of an order of magnitude greater.
Surely, the great unseen and the unknown would not countenance a hammer blow. PPP wins, PML-N wins, whoever wins wearing a civilian cloak, the establishment loses.
The Mehrangate judgment has laid bare just how terrified the swaggering men in uniform were of a girl with a voice and with the people behind her.
Two decades on, a full civilian term leading to an election with another full term a possibility — the beast may have grown weak but its instincts will be the same: civilians win; establishment loses.
Since the past informs the present, at least in terms of perception, the uncertainty will grow as a general election inches closer. And so will the howling and the bickering and the confusion.
But there is a problem: the closer the election draws, the less time there is to engineer a derailment.
Even in the land of perma-crisis, some crises need time to gestate if the inevitable is to be delayed.
And time is running out.
Still, the rumour mill is quietly throwing out a date: watch out for January.
But it may already be too late.
An on-time election looks about as likely as anything can be in this land of unlikely events.
The writer is a member of staff.