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Towards breaking point?

January 27, 2013

WHAT’S the difference between pressure points and breaking point?

We’ll get to that in a minute.

They stood tall last week, the politicians did. Qadri came and Qadri went and the politicians handled it with aplomb.

Mature! Sensible! Enlightened self-interest! Hurrah!

Then the week, and the threat, passed and we’ve been left with the spectacle of the past few days.

What spectacle, you wonder.

Maybe that’s the point: politicians being politicians has lost its ability to animate.

One guy snatches the other guy’s candidates. The big boys make a show of hard, hard bargaining over impotent caretakers and the like. Some imply, innocently, oh so innocently, that the prime minister could be involved in a yet-to-be-proved murder and a yet-to-be-established cover-up.

The prime minister himself, he of the ordinary party-worker cadre, appears to come to the rescue of big business implicated in the death of, well, ordinary factory workers in Karachi. And someone suggests that a new province in Punjab have two capitals because, y’know, the one-capital idea is so passé and gauche.

Mature? Sensible? Hurrah? Self-interest, minus the enlightenment.

Back to the pressure points vs breaking point. Qadri, it turns out, was a pressure point dressed up as breaking point.

He came threatening to knock out the politicians and clean up the system and because his message chimed so perfectly with the army’s timeworn criticisms, Qadri was taken seriously — a potential breaking point for the democratic project.

It turned out Qadri wasn’t a very effective pressure point, let alone a breaking point. But for a few hours, particularly after the court had pounced, Qadri focused the minds of the civilians in a way only the threat, however remote, of extinction can.

Then, threat seen off, politicians returned to business as usual. Nothing unusual there.

Each time this happens, though, it underscores just how dangerous a game is being played.

To make the civilians perform better, a little pressure doesn’t work. So more pressure is applied. That tends not to work either. So more and more pressure is applied, until we’re dangerously close to breaking point.

That’s when the civilians get the message and get their act together. But only just.

Here’s the problem: it’s difficult to know a priori, before the event, when exactly a pressure point becomes breaking point.

The difference between positive pressure for reform, for better outcomes within the democratic system, and pressure that causes the mould to snap is impossible to know beforehand.

All that we can know is that extraordinary levels of pressure are needed before change, of the positive kind, can be effected. And in the heat of the moment or because of the smallest of miscalculations, a pressure point can become breaking point.

And then back to square one, the never-ending journey of finding a durable configuration of power that can also deliver to the people.

Who to blame, the politicians for being just so goshdarn incompetent and stubborn or the folks who can’t resist trying to speed up a maddeningly slow rate of improvement?

It helps to understand that the problem is anything but limited to the civilian.

Nine-eleven happened. The world began to measure time in eras pre- and post-9/11. What did the boys here do?

They mothballed a failed security paradigm for a bit, then rolled it out again in a few years as a ‘double game’ and more than a decade on, they talk a good game but nobody really, really believes them.

If a 9/11-magnitude event doesn’t cause a decisive break from the past, just managing to nudge the boys to the middle, you’d probably be right in guessing that another 9/11-magnitude event would be needed to get them to switch all the way over to good sense.

Except you don’t really want to be in the realm of 9/11-type events. The last time they threatened (apocryphally) to bomb us back into the Stone Ages. The next time they may not bother to give us the benefit of a threat.

Beyond a point a pressure point turns into breaking point — the worrying part is that it’s virtually impossible to know beforehand where that point lies.

Take the court. It harries and harasses. To get its way, it chucks out one prime minister. Then it harries and harasses the next prime minister.

By a stroke of luck, Zardari is all equanimity and philosophical about it. Musharraf had three prime ministers in one term, he reasons, and look at the arsenal he had at his disposal.

If Zardari didn’t see things that way — and you suspect the court wishes he didn’t — the pressure could easily tip over to breaking point.

But back to the civilians — because until they perform we’re destined to stumble around endlessly — and the amount of pressure that is brought to bear on them.

There was Qadri. Before him there was Mansoor Ijaz. Before Ijaz, there was Imran Khan. After Qadri there will be someone else.

Some of the pressure is misguided, some isn’t. But none of it can be wished away. And it can’t be wished away because the stick of public accountability — being voted out at the ballot box — isn’t effective enough.

To believe Zardari will be chastened and a man reformed by electoral defeat is to believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. Sharif is a man chastened and reformed, but his government in Punjab is hardly a model of progress and inspiration.

The other forces can’t be wished away. They will keep exerting pressure. And Pakistan will keep flirting with danger: where pressure on the democratic forces will be ratcheted up so high by the non-democratic forces that it may trigger breaking point.

It is as depressing as it is true: change won’t come without pressure, but the only side from which meaningful pressure is applied doesn’t know when to stop.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm