The Morning After

By Anjum Altaf

It is a fact that no one outside Pakistan considers the most recent electoral exercise to have been even-handed — some analysts have gone so far as calling it a ‘soft coup.’ This is no surprise. Most outsiders also insist that Pakistan sponsors terrorism. But while there are many Pakistanis who contest the latter, it is striking that the number believing in the fairness of the recent electoral exercise is relatively small. Even partisans benefiting from the outcome, while offering various justifications, do not really dispute the charge.

It seems that in nudging the choice, the power elite (the segment of the elite that has the ability to affect other people’s lives) may have overplayed its hand. Does this, and the intervention itself, come at a price? Recall that negating the electoral mandate of 1971 resulted in dismemberment of the country. What kind of price might we expect this time around?

First, there is a clear loss of institutional credibility. While praetorian rule in the past was attributed to individuals — Ayub, Zia, Musharraf — the narrative this time is depersonalised and centred on the uniform — slogans are in the air that have never been heard before.

Second, there are still many Pakistanis who, while accepting the reality of nudging, justify it as being for the good because the previous dispensation was allegedly so corrupt and anti-national that giving it five more years would have spelled disaster for the country. This predicament arguably legitimized the use of any available means to replace the predecessors with an upright and patriotic team. If the expectations of this segment of the population are belied yet again, it could erode the legitimacy of the power elite, and its claim to represent the national interest, for good.

Third, the probability that the above-mentioned expectations could be fulfilled is not high. Leave aside the fact that the new dispensation is peopled largely by the same individuals who were part of the erstwhile lot of the corrupt, and subscribe, for the sake of argument, to the comforting myth that an honest leader could keep them in check. There is nevertheless no escaping the reality that no leader, however upright personally, can defy the structural imperatives that define a system and circumscribe the room for maneuver.

To start with, there are structural imperatives that push from below in a society characterised by widespread poverty and the dependance of the many on the few for rights and entitlements. With a parliamentary system, and the majority of electoral constituencies having a dominant rural vote, such a configuration cannot but throw up the kinds of power brokers now characterized as ‘electables.’ The motivations of such representatives, who have dominated Pakistani politics throughout, are well known and they do not barter their loyalties for free. Let us assume, however, that a truly great leader can keep them in check.

But then there are structural imperatives from above. A leader beholden to the power elite cannot but acquiesce to its dictates which means that foreign and defence policies could remain out of bounds. At the same time, if the leader is not inclined to take on the theocracy, the internal dynamics are unlikely to change if not become more dangerous — consider the abject surrender on Atif Mian. Add to this the constraints that would accompany the recourse to the IMF that has already been signalled as inevitable and the fiscal vice would tighten some more.

Pakistani politicians are very much reduced to the status of the princes in pre-Independence India who were rulers only in name while power was exercised by the British — they can revel and indulge thier egos in their restricted domains while the real business is conducted elsewhere. It is not any fault of of the politicians, just a reflection of the reality on the ground. The princes, to their credit, left us a glorious cultural heritage of art, poetry and music that continues to enrich our lives and provide solace in trying times. Our politicians have focused on enriching themselves and adding concrete to our lives. Imran Khan may make different choices but he would nevertheless be operating at the margins turning opulent rest houses into hotels and colleges.        

This is ironic because the broad framework outlined by Imran Khan points in the right direction — the country can move ahead only if it prioritises the productive uplift of the bottom forty percent and invests heavily in its security and human capital. But will there be enough left to do that after satisfying the obligations of all the paymasters listed above — defence, debt repayments, conditionalities, luxury imports, political payoffs, and the inevitable leakages — that would leave the kitty bare and beyond the reach of minor austerities and absurdities like forbidding cheese and inviting donations to build dams?

When Imran Khan recognises these constraints, as he inevitably will, and attempts to wriggle free of any of them, he will face the same reality as all those who have had the crown placed on their heads before him. And so one might expect the cycle to repeat and the status quo sustained. But there might well be an accompanying downward drift with the continued erosion of institutions and their loss of legitimacy. Already, we are in a surreal situation in which every organ of state is carrying out the functions intended for another. This is not a lasting arrangement and the lost time in which competing economies move further ahead could exert an enormous toll.

Pakistan has a very young population, poorly educated and trained, that is looking for employment to survive. What will happen when the dreams dissolve and its survival is at stake? I suppose one could tell them to go climb one of the trees that might be sprouting by that time. On the other hand, the descent into anarchy could accelerate, the power elite flee to its foreign abodes — Dubai, Jeddah, Paris, London — and the parties that have been mainstreamed as part of the electoral engineering step in to destroy the old and rotting system once and for all. This might well be a triumph that could bear the mark of a colossal tragedy in the making.

An edited version of this opinion was published in The News on September 27, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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