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An old bag of tricks

December 16, 2012

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REWIND to 2008.

If someone were to tell you that a PPP-led federal government up to its elbows in patronage would allow the cost of electricity to treble while simultaneously presiding over the collapse of the power sector over its four years in charge, you’d think that person crazy.

It would, and does, sound like political suicide.

And yet that’s precisely what’s happened over the past four years.

Why would the PPP commit electoral suicide?

Competence. Capacity. Capability.

The PPP lacks all of them, so early on it decided the problem was of power generation and concentrated on that aspect to the exclusion of transmission and distribution and billing.

Of course, if you try and pump more expensive-to-produce electricity into an already dysfunctional grid, you’ll end up where the PPP has ended up: presiding over the near-collapse of the power sector while more than trebling the price of electricity.

Imagine the PML-N were to come to power.

On paper, the N-League’s economic team looks better than the PPP’s. But the problem is the Sharifs tend to have break-the-bank ideas — motorways, yellow cabs, sasti roti, housing schemes, danish schools, metro bus systems, etc — that render otherwise relatively decent economic stewardship into something worse.

The PML-N also has a military and a militancy problem.

The military problem is that the boss, Nawaz Sharif, gets that the military is the problem but his party doesn’t share the boss’s vision — they’d rather be co-opted again than be on the outside awaiting an uncertain fate. The militancy problem is that seeing the political and social lie of the land, the PML-N has, either out of fear or sympathy, aligned itself with militant groups in pockets across Punjab.

Better to win as a party in the near term, even if that means everyone loses in the long term — the PML-N does what others would likely do in its place.

See the PPP’s alliance with the Sunni Ittehad Council for reference: a cold calculation that pockets of Barelvi voters will switch sides if the PML-N links up with the Jamaat-i-Islami, never mind that Salmaan Taseer’s killer was whipped into a murderous frenzy by some among the new political ally.

What if Khan came to power?

He’s got the economic team and reasonably good advice on matters political and practical. But Khan’s popularity has less to do with him maturing as a politician than the status quo options declining in public esteem.

So up and up the learning curve Khan will have to go and down and down he will quickly slide. BB and Sharif eventually figured out the problem, but they started out early; Khan is already a sexagenarian.

Ineffectual, ineffectual and ineffectual — that’s what the civilian alternatives line up as.

To acknowledge that is not to damn the civilians. Holding their feet to the fire, as opposed to chucking them into the fire, is part of everyone’s education.

Excoriate but demand better — that’s fair game.

Excoriate but demand the other — the military, the caretakers, the technocrats — that’s something else altogether.

As the elections near, it’s becoming harder to separate the two.

The ones championing a responsible and viable state and society are still out there fighting the good fight, haranguing the civilians into lifting their game.

Amidst them, though, the masked wolves have begun to roam again.

Dark whispers of corruption, tales of impunity and excess, scandals being peddled, lamenting a country lost at the altar of coalition politics, preaching doom and spreading gloom — the old bag of tricks is being dusted off.

The purpose is always the same: to reinforce the doubts systematically sown over the decades that Pakistan is somehow a state and society that can’t prosper as a democracy.

Give the civilians a chance and they’ll always find a way to screw up; give someone else a chance and maybe, if not the first, second, third or fourth time, the next time round they will bring salvation — that’s the seduction of hope set against guaranteed failure.

The civilians help that project by doing a pretty good of screwing up when in charge. The pounding they get from even the critics who get it — democracy, good; particular civilian politicians, bad — can help obscure the difference: after all, what good a democracy in which all politicians are bad?

But all of that could be ridden out bumpily if it weren’t for the wolves with their sly sense of timing.

Through manipulations and interventions, the debate at the periphery is picking up again: must it be a choice between PPP, PML-N and PTI and the usual grimy sidekicks?

Or can we somehow figure out how to pause the system, to give it time to recover, to cleanse it some, to prop it up and set it on its way soon, cantering off towards the promised land of stability and control?

The question is asked innocently, though it is anything but.

It is rooted in a very particular vision of Pakistan: security-centric; veering to the Right; a state in which economic growth and the veneer of stability are the trade-off for the public’s exclusion from deciding the future of state and society.

Elections challenge that version of Pakistan because they are messy and inclusive and give politicians funny ideas about eventually being in charge.

Elections challenge that version of Pakistan because they pull the country further towards the ineffectual politician, and away from the malign anti-democrat.

Because elections are bad for business — the way of business under the old order — we’re being reminded of why politicians are bad.

Damage the latter further and you may undermine the former.

Strap yourself in and hold on to your seat: the weeks ahead look set to be very bumpy.

The writer is a Dawn staffer.

cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm