Pakistani politics has often been little more than an undisguised scramble for power, at times tense, at times utterly mad. But over the last 25 years or so that I have been reporting on the country, there was always a destination, always a goal in the minds of our scramblers, no matter how foul or noble. Is it the same today?
The 1985 partyless polls, for example, were designed to produce a parliament that would have no form, no structure, and therefore, no future. But the hundreds who scrambled to be the first past the post at least knew that they would get to call themselves MNAs — a title that most of them could not even dream of in a party-based election.
The vile dictator died in 1988, triggering another scramble that saw Benazir Bhutto in the strangest of triumphs. Sorely inhibited by her party's failure to win a clear majority, she still went ahead to form a government because she could at least call herself the first woman prime minster of a Muslim country. Two years later, Nawaz Sharif trampled all democratic norms to benefit from a stolen election in a system that was bound to turn on him. But at least he could claim to have broken the Bhuttos' stranglehold on Pakistani politics and emerge as the first populist Punjabi prime minister.
There was another scramble three years later that saw Benazir repeating her earlier mistake by cobbling together an untenable coalition that was destined to fall apart. Maybe she knew that but at least the opportunity allowed her to demonstrate that her party, given a chance, was willing to work with the army in pursuit of agendas that it had historically battled against.
A mere three years later, it was Nawaz Sharif once again in a victory so dominated by the Punjab that it could never have won the approval of the smaller provinces. It didn't matter for him because all he wanted to do was to teach the army a lesson and make it subservient to the elected government.
Then, there was the high altitude drama that swept another edition of dictatorship into power. Mad as the scramble may have been, the general was fighting for his life and perhaps for the life of military elitism that is so dear to our men in uniform. The rush to ditch the PML-N and the PPP in the 2002 elections may have seemed recklessly opportunistic but with the war on terror in full swing, and the entire world lapping up the convenience of dealing with a dictator, the scramblers knew this was their best chance to serve a full term in office.
But if we look around ourselves today, can we see any method to the madness we witness? What we see is a judiciary obsessed with reopening cases against the president, as if every Pakistani pining for justice has been served and this is the only thing left to be done. How will it help a country still reeling from the worst floods that the region has seen in a century?
We see TV channels, NGOs, commercial enterprises and multinational franchises collecting relief funds with no one accountable for what they have collected and where it has gone. How is this unchecked grab for funds going to help Pakistan?
We see provincial governments sparring with the federal government over who has the right to provide relief even as the victims pick up the few sad remnants of their belongings and head home wearily on their own. They may not remember who, if any one, helped them, but they are unlikely to forget who should have but didn't. Does that make for a cohesive nation?
We see our star TV anchors predicting an imminent demise of the government and generating a hysteria that they hope will become a self-fulfilling prophecy in due course. What next? Another army rule? Is that what we are scrambling for?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2010.
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