Burden of choice

Ruler you choose will decide how country handles its myriad economic crises, pace of reforms

Farrukh Khan Pitafi February 03, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Follow his WhatsApp channel ‘Farrukh K Pitafi’ for the latest updates


Do small decisions have far-reaching effects? Dr Frasier Crane insists they do in an episode of the sitcom named after him (Episode 13 titled Sliding Frasiers, Season 8, Frasier). The episode begins with Dr Crane agonising over a choice between a sweater and a suit jacket to wear to a speed dating event. Then we are shown what happens with either of the choices. Two timelines follow. In one timeline he seems to have found what looks like the love of his life. In the other, no such thing happens and he suffers through the dating event without much luck. But by the end of the episode conspiracies of circumstances ensure that the two timelines merge and he returns home heartbroken and empty-handed. If the course of history is determined by the shortcomings of us mortals is the illusion of choice, not a bad thing? It is because it is the hope that kills you.

I would be lying if I said I have never struggled with choices. There is a famous submarine sandwich chain where you are asked to choose everything from meats, pickles, salads, sauces and to my great chagrin even breads. When I do not want to tax my patience, I try to go with the popular choices. But there is something accursed about paying for bad choices. Your pocket, stomach and heart all castigate you when you do that.

Granted, my crisis of choice does not go beyond a sandwich shop. In real life, I am no Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place. But as I grow older I get more and more convinced that my presence or absence would have made little difference to how things shape up in real life.

So far, I have ensured that I make every political choice in the public eye. In the past three general elections not only did I vote, I made a point of informing my audiences about which way I intended to vote. It was a small comfort that all three times the party I voted for formed the government. I still grapple with a simple question. Whether I am good at picking winners or just incredibly good at reading the room in time. But it makes little difference for I am a great believer in the wisdom of the system. All three times the system told us that an error was made and the experiment was thus terminated. I am now convinced that I am endowed with the exact opposite of Midas touch. The curse of Sadim? Perhaps. Everything I touch turns to dust. So, why bother with this mutually assured agony?

Make no mistakes. A lot is riding on the outcome of the February 8 general election. The ruler you choose will decide how the country handles its myriad economic crises and the pace of reforms. How the country interacts with other nations and what democratic norms still remain relevant in the long run.

In the Sharif collective, you see a long-proven record of delivery and speedy governance. In the Bhutto-Zardari team, you see a young leader who has remarkably electrified a sombre-looking electorate despite a pronounced media and social bias against him. In the PTI you see an indomitable will to survive all odds. The religious parties have also vowed to make honest Muslims out of us. And then there are regional parties that often play the kingmaker, especially in hung parliaments.

Pakistan has a stability curse. No system has lasted long enough to produce durable and positive results. It is a known fact that democratic governments sooner or later collapse. But perhaps the most understated truth is that even dictatorial governments fail in this country. Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Musharraf, all were forced out one way or the other. So the heart of our governance structure is made of anarchy. This anarchy is propelled by the structural imbalances of the state and society. In the past seventy-six years, expediency demanded we paper over these shortcomings instead of trying to address them through an honest national dialogue. The crises stemming from these structural maladjustments will only intensify in the coming years and equally desperate will be our efforts to overcome these challenges.

Can this change? Maybe. But I am not holding my breath. We do the needful when there is little or no time left.

In the absence of honest stock-taking, what we are likely to have with every passing election is reminiscent of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story titled Naya Qanoon (new law). The protagonist of the story, a hansom cabbie living and resenting under the Raj, overhears that a new law is about to be enforced on the first of April bringing an end to the colonial rule. Believing in this hearsay he beats up an Englishman. When he is being taken to jail after his arrest the policemen burst his bubble that there is no such thing as the new law.

Please do not think for a second that I want to spread despondency. Far from it. Where would we be if good people lost all faith? By all means, have firm faith in progress. And it will become real one day. It is only that the finite lifespan of a flawed mortal is too short for infinite hope. What I have lost is not faith in progress, but faith in my judgment. It is a terrible realisation to reckon with. And my burden to carry.

So, as I surrender the burden of choice I have vowed never to vote again. Please, note that I am not saying that you should not vote either. The future of the country may depend on your vote. My decision is mine alone and there is a solid if dark set of reasoning behind it.

I have loved nothing more than this country. And I will do whatever I can to make it better. But what do you do when you realise that you are part of the problem and not the solution? What does your love command when you learn that your presence affects your beloved like poison? Recently, I heard a sound piece of advice attributed to one of the choices I recently advocated. Young were reportedly told never to come back if they left the country for greener pastures. I am not young anymore. This may pose some additional difficulties. But I can tell good advice when I see one. If I can I will act on it.

But don’t listen to the tired, tortured souls. Go out and vote on Election Day. A brighter future may depend on your vote. Carpe diem.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2024.

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