We are endlessly lost in what could pass for a puppetry drama where actors made of flesh and actors made of wood are together producing a constant comedy of errors. Our problem is that we don’t even know what our problem is. We are in the habit of only running after illusions.
We are addicted to our television screens, looking for a new scandal every evening which, depending on its ratings, lasts a week or so. It not only loses fast its spell and lure but also quickly starts bleaching out of our memories. We feel starved of fun and excitement and ravenously start looking for a new, juicier scandal. And we like to make every scandal our cause célèbre. We are a fun-loving people. But, poor as we are, our fun is mostly at the cost of others’ ‘fun’. And we have more fun if it is at the cost of our rulers’ fun.
A continuous political yo-yo blowing hot and cold gives us pleasure. What we don’t understand is that the problems that we face in our daily lives are only symptoms of a disease. Our present neither-parliamentary-nor-presidential system has no parallel anywhere in the world – or even in contemporary history. The closest parallel is perhaps the Machiavellian “princedom” where the “corrupt masses” could only be controlled by a prince who is either the “child of fortune” or who acquires power through “deceit and manipulation.”
The Machiavellian ‘prince’ has to be “hypocritical and vacillating” wearing the face of “mercy, faith and integrity” only to create a public image. And so, in Machiavellian tradition, our rulers have kept the people hostage to their personal whims. Today’s political scene is evidence enough that even the Quaid’s worries were not unwarranted. He had warned us against what he called the “evils” of bribery, corruption, nepotism and jobbery and wanted the government to put these evils down with “an iron hand.” We not only failed to grapple with these challenges but in fact are living with these problems as an “integral” part of our society.
Double Shah is a character that now epitomises Pakistan’s new identity. Everyone wants to multiply his or her wealth. No wonder that we have a history of scams ranging in recent memory from the cooperatives scandal of the 1990s to the shameful Kasur scandal of the new millennium. Other scandals involved the Pakistan Steel Mills, Karachi Stock Exchange, KESC, PTCL, Gwadar Port, Nandipur Project, HBL, MCB, Punjab Bank, Pakistan Railways, and of course PIA. All these scandals disappeared from the news and our memory as fast as they had appeared.
In every case, the concerned influentials – whosoever they were – managed to turn the tide. Nobody knows what happened to the victims. But this is only part of our pathetic story. We have also been making global headlines with mega scandals involving some of our most high-profile leaders. The latest one is the Panama Leaks implicating big names behind offshore shell companies from all over the world. There are over 200 Pakistanis involved in offshore connections. But let’s be fair. The Panama Leaks on Pakistan are no revelation. They only corroborate what we already knew.
Who didn’t know of the bank accounts in Switzerland, the well-known Surrey Palace, the chateau in France, homes in Britain, Spain and Florida? And everyone knew who owned the flats in London. Also, no other country is this familiar with the practice of forgiving by law the influential plunderers of the national exchequer. Plunderers and looters, murderer and the killers could not have a safer haven anywhere else in the world. Doesn’t the NRO ring any bells?
Why this hullabaloo over something that we have been living with, helplessly if not complacently, as our fait accompli in a rotten system? In Karl Sagan’s words, “one of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
With no one like the legendary rulers of Mysore around, our offshore-political elites – in power by electoral rotation – have been ruling this country in the Mughal style with a neo-colonial touch reminiscent of the British Raj. Our colonial masters then were here only on deputation. Their families, homes, banks, hospitals, educational institutions for their children and their landed properties were all in their native land. In our case, with rare exceptions, our post-independence neo-colonial masters took the opposite route.
Also, for decades, our rulers have been allocating millions of acres of areas in southern Punjab including Rahim Yar Khan, Bahawalpur and Balochistan to Arab princes for their annual hunting expeditions just to gain their goodwill and personal favours. They never understood, much less valued, the sanctity of independence or that of the country’s territorial integrity. To them, their native land is only an ‘offshore’ colony which they have left at the mercy of a corrupt bureaucracy and chosen political gladiators.
And to take good care of the poor people, organised criminal gangs like the Chhotu Gang and multiple Lyari gangs have grown under the umbrella of major political parties which also sponsor some of the ‘popular’ gangsters as their candidates for election to provincial and national assemblies. In this dreary scenario, one is reminded of the spirit of a defiant verse in an old American song composed originally by famous singer Lead Belly in his Bourgeois Blues:
“In the home of the brave, land of the free,/ I will not be put down by no bourgeoisie.”
Indeed, a time comes when a nation must wake up from its slumber and take control of its own destiny. Things will not change unless the people step out of their inertia and make their clarion call loud and clear. Only a drastic change in our anachronistic system can free us of the same old usurpers of the country’s politics and wealth. Changing faces will not do. The system itself must change.
Let’s not make the Panama Leaks our nemesis or a cause célèbre. No one is guilty until proven by law. This is a legal issue, not political. It must be addressed, not by politics or street violence, but by a free and fair legal process. Parliament must also keep out of it, lest we are sucked into the bottomless black hole of our corrupt politics.
For now at least, let’s pray for the health and wellbeing of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Abdul Sattar Edhi, the former in London for a medical checkup and the latter in Karachi for treatment. For us, both are respectable, one as an elected leader and the other as a renowned social worker. Let’s hope that the time will soon come when our leaders will also prefer banks and hospitals in their own country rather than going to Panama or London.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.