Is there a way out? | Dawn

This article was published in Dawn on Mar 04, 2023, at the following link

PAKISTAN has encountered many difficulties in the past, including a near meltdown of its economy in 1968; a real or engineered breakdown of the political system, which ultimately led to martial law in 1958, 1977 and 1999; as well as security crises as seen in the public uprising of 1968, the mutiny in a part of the country in 1970, nationwide street agitation in 1977 and the war against terrorism from 2004 to 2017 fought almost across the entire country.

We did suffer from a fatal blow during the political-cum-security crisis of the early 1970s when the country was truncated. But except for the tragedy of the fall of East Pakistan in 1971, we as a nation faced most of these crises valiantly.

What we are witnessing today is the unprecedented convergence of all types of crises — economic, political and security. We can add to this the unprecedented environmental havoc this country faced in the form of heavy rains and floods in 2022, and whose challenges continue to be faced even today in several parts of Balochistan, Sindh and south Punjab.

As the world is smarting from the colossal damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and is facing a severe economic downturn, its impact is also bearing down on Pakistan, directly and indirectly. This is the state of, what some people call, poly-crises being faced by Pakistan today.

In a modern state, all crises are managed by the political leadership of the country. What makes the crises in Pakistan today extremely worrisome is the domination of the political crisis over all other challenges and the resulting distraction from finding solutions to the more important economic and security issues.

The present crisis is defined by an extreme degree of polarisation and deep divisions. Although Pakistan has seen political polarisation in the past, as in the period leading up to the 1970 general election and the aftermath of the post-1977 election, the current fissures seem to be deeper than ever before. These divisions are no more confined to the political arena; they have spread to the judiciary and other sensitive institutions, while the civil bureaucracy has already been politicised for some time.

What our polarised politicians are currently experiencing are withdrawal symptoms.

Many people ask why there is so much political turmoil in the country and why nothing is being done by the political leaders and other powerful players to address the situation. A possible answer is that these, in large part, are ‘withdrawal symptoms’ akin to a situation when long-time addicts are denied their favourite form of addiction.

After withdrawal, the addicts feel restless, become dysfunctional, and turn violent, even suicidal. They are unable to appraise their condition, let alone make efforts to improve. They may scramble here and there, even beg, borrow and steal to get back to their addiction, but they are generally not in a position to seek systematic treatment of this condition.

Most politicians in Pakistan have been addicted to the establishment’s patronage — we can call it interference — for the last 70 years of its existence, as the recently retired army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa admitted in his farewell address.

Politicians in Pakistan are not accustomed to taking independent decisions. Whenever they have tried to do that, and try they did, they were heavily punished and made examples of. President and later prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto probably enjoyed the greatest level of independence as he took over the government when the military was at its weakest immediately after the military debacle in Dhaka.

He sacked a number of senior-most military officers and later fired the army and air force chiefs too. He was too competent and experienced to be anything but independent. For this, he was made to pay dearly and was sent to the gallows.

Benazir Bhutto tried to compromise but probably not enough. Nawaz Sharif arguably tried the maximum number of times to assert his authority as prime minister but faced dismissal, imprisonment, exile and finally dismissal-cum-disqualification for life. Imran Khan was ‘on the same page’ with the military for the better part of his 44-month reign as prime minister but was eventually punished for insisting on retaining his choice of Punjab chief minister and ISI chief.

The politicians, whether in government or in opposition, conformed to this state of interference and almost always looked towards the establishment to dictate policy and provide firm support to implement it through all branches of the state.

Only one example will suffice to illustrate the extent of the elected politicians’ dependence on the establishment; Imran Khan recently confessed, sheepishly by his standards, that his government had been using ‘agencies’ (read: ISI) to get enough legislators in parliament to pass a law or even the annual budget.

It now seems that with the change of guard in the army last November, the military has either started seriously practising its promised dissociation from politics or significantly reduced it.

The current political turmoil exists arguably because our politicians are not receiving their usual dose of ‘interference’ and don’t know how to manage their politics without the establishment’s ‘steadying hand’. Both the government and opposition led by Imran Khan have openly approached the establishment to help them deal with the current impasse.

The greatest question for democracy in Pakistan in 2023 is whether or not the establishment sticks to its current position of staying out of the political arena, even in the face of much pleading by politicians and the pressures of an economy near default. If they do, there will be chaos, upheaval, agitation and even violence during the next two to three years.

However, the political class will learn how to handle its own affairs without a strong guide but within the parameters of the Constitution. Till then, it seems, we may have to bear with the withdrawal symptoms.

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