When I recently returned from my longish sojourn to the US, visiting family, landing at Islamabad and the drive out of the airport could only be explained in one word — desolate. The goings-about at the airport, the arrivals area and the drive back was depressing. There was more, but first a flashback from when I used to frequently travel back from Bangkok after various Track-II conferences: the plane took off around eight in the evening and landed at around ten in the night at Lahore. Bangkok was a sea of lights and presented the metropolis in its full majesty, while Lahore (despite Shehbaz speed and under his rule over Punjab) was a sea of darkness. I used to struggle to find a cluster of lights from the air. Gloom and depression overtook the moment regardless of how many times one returned, sometime separated only by weeks.
It is easier to rubbish the experience by escaping into the developed and developing conundrum — though we should now consider re-characterising us to the under-developed category since most of our indices are anyway fabricated. Thailand too is developed only in pockets with its rural areas needing an infusion of equal attention, but those are still clean environs and the people remain moored to the order that they know exists with promise. The US is of course another beast — despite what you hear — and perhaps unfair to compare with. But just four months later to see a people who seem dead and unlively, morose is perhaps more descriptive, flimsily dressed despite the severity of the weather, undernourished in appearance, did not explain the ten-foot tall who are meant to ward off an enemy five times bigger, now with an economy ten times larger and reserves 120-times stronger.
Undoubtedly, our people have borne a lot and suffered at the hands of inept leadership — which includes all hues, just to be clear. It has been variously described, elite capture et al, and that term again is all encompassing but in all fairness this playfulness was bound to give. It has, and we are all now rushing to give it an intellectual underpinning. There is none. We kept emptying the till and then filling it in with borrowed money. Today, no lender will give, and we produce none, lulled by the freebies. Borrowed sources satiated our greed which thrives unfulfilled. This state in simpler terms is called going bankrupt. Thank God for what the soil still throws up and keeps us alive.
We never mended our ways frittering what was borrowed: on unproductive, short-gain charades; unworthy and undeserved privileges and perks; misappropriation, and graft. The people in whose name such debt was accumulated remained poor, deprived and jobless. Many were led to starvation, suicides and crime. Only the elites thrived. The country lost its industry as its agriculture too was turned brown for the insatiable real-estate and housing sector to return a quick buck. (An international report places the value of Pakistan’s real-estate sector at three trillion USD). This bubble was bound to burst. An economy based on speculation can only go so long. Pakistan’s Sri Lanka moment is not too far.
So, forget the potted roads and the rusted protective railings crying for some paint, and the clinging dirt asking to be cleaned and the heaps of dirt and rubbish on the sides awaiting proper disposal, we are in a state of animated suspension. Like in an animated film when disintegration in a scene launches bits in the air, and movement suspends, objects hang stationary in space. Floating unmoored and untethered, which way they might fall, no one knows. That in short is the state of the society, state and an order which is now a patent disorder and fully fragmented.
These are the symptoms. Let’s disaggregate this anarchy. Pakistan has been hit by a double whammy simultaneously. Political disenchantment, dysfunction and extreme polarisation has virtually left all institutions either fully compromised or in disarray. There is little being done of value that can provide this confused and lost nation a direction. The largest political party in the country sits out the legislative function waiting for newer mandate through fresh elections. What we have instead is a compromised proxy system of governance which lacks authenticity and self-assurance regardless of the constitutional garb thrust on it. The economy is tanked and out of its depth and no one knows from where to begin to resolve the labyrinth.
On top of it is the space that has either been ceded or won by the terror groups to regroup on Pakistani soil after having been evicted in a long struggle over ten years. Who let them in remains abegging. The parliament was briefed and possibly acquiesced. Hence, we are in another war with the same groups that we had earlier defeated at huge expense in life and treasure. There are still apologists who defend the chimera of a negotiated appeasement — possibly finding TTP a backdoor entry. Self-delusion is how one may explain it best although a lot more can be said. It has thus graduated to a triple whammy, lo and behold. And without anyone in-charge. Everyone seemingly just ambling along merrily on their preferred stroll leading to nowhere.
Who might help? Let’s not go back to the army and the judiciary, please. The President and the Election Commission are still in place and are constitutionally mandated as autonomous structures to take independent decisions. So are the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Chairman Senate. Between them they hold enough constitutional authority to re-trigger political recovery through an early and agreed national election. If consensus doesn’t emerge it can be mandated. Let the EC announce a date even if it still corresponds to what is tenured for the current set-up. Even that will help. But rumour-mongering of further delays with an Emergency, or using disqualification as a political weapon, are to be shunned in unequivocal terms. Let politics go back to the people.
When too much is wrong, getting one thing right may propel the process of resolving the multi-faceted dilemmas that engulf. Politics is not the root of all that is bad but is the major share of what is bad and hence can be the trigger for resolution. It will though need to change its approach and attitude and not be the exploitative force that in the name of democracy has ruined this nation. Public service is far nobler than what it has become. If they can be righted the entire governing structure will right itself. Enough of elite manipulation of the resources in their favour. It is time to return to the people what is truly theirs. This is the kernel that will need to become the mantra. Else, in the hands of the traditional political elites we shall continue to be plundered.
Economy needs long-term treatment to rid it off its distortions. In ‘good’ hands we can save both the economy and the nation. All hands will need to turn good, though. Meanwhile, let’s clean the stables. Resolving labyrinths comes with starting somewhere. Let fresh elections and cleaning the terror mess be those triggers. We just might find an anchor.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 6th, 2023.
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