A Kafkaesque nightmare

Over a week after contested general elections, outcome remains uncertain

By Ghazi Salahuddin
February 18, 2024
ECP workers are counting votes after polling at a polling station during General Elections 2024, held in Karachi on February 8, 2024. — PPI

What would a Charles Dickens, or a Dostoevsky or a Manto do with today’s Pakistan, in terms of investing its intriguing socio-political realities into classic fiction? Times of upheaval, we know, have generally inspired great writers. And we are certainly living in interesting times in this country.


Over a week after the contested general elections, the outcome remains uncertain. The numbers game is continuing. Almost every party has complaints about irregularities. It is also rather difficult to decipher the split mandate. There is a growing sense of disorder and the tempo of political protest is rising. New alliances are being forged and old rivalries are becoming more antagonistic.

One reason why I am thinking about how the overall situation of the country would be interpreted by a creative writer is that media analysts are apparently not able to get a hang of it. They may feel constrained by their own partisan feelings and be professionally restricted by the oppressive media environment.

Besides, it is my understanding that writers and literary critics are usually good judges of the human condition and have the advantage of resorting to parables and metaphors. Poets would also do a better job of providing emotional expression to the feelings of sensitive and discerning citizens.

I was invited this week to speak on Faiz by an educational institution and had the opportunity to relate the poet’s verse to specific moments in our history. That is how Faiz had chronicled our collective experiences during specific periods. It is interesting how poetry, and not just of Faiz, comes to our rescue when we feel bewildered by the waywardness of our political or administrative leaders.

There is another reason why my attention is diverted from specific political developments that make headlines. This is the Karachi Literature Festival weekend, a major social and cultural event that brings a large number of creative and learned individuals together. This is the 15th edition of what has become an institution, though it is somewhat subdued this time.

Incidentally, conversations at a literary festival invariably remain hinged on current national affairs, partly because a large number of books are launched and reviewed. This KLF’s theme is: ‘Sustainability: Words changing Mindsets’. Still, there is to be no escape from the major political and social developments of our times. It would not be possible to ignore the aftershocks of the elections that obviously have the potential to create a lot of trouble for all leading players.

We know that 2024 is the year of the elections. Citizens of 70 countries – more than half of the global population – are participating in this democratic exercise and observers agree that in most cases, the elections will neither be free nor fair. The prospect of what can happen in the United States, supposedly the citadel of democracy, is really alarming.

In my column last week, I had noted how comedian Trevor Noah had called Imran Khan Trump’s twin way back in 2018. Even now, Pakistan has its Imran Khan and America has its Donald Trump and both have a committed cult following.

There can, of course, be no comparison between the United States and this impoverished star-crossed country. But I was struck by this headline of Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times this week: ‘Why I am deeply worried for America’. Wouldn’t this feeling be more appropriate for Pakistan? Anyhow, Paul Krugman wrote: “It now seems entirely possible that within the next year, American democracy could be irretrievably altered”.

What can happen in Pakistan is sure to be more fearful. The crisis that is building up is rooted not just in the political wrangles that the widely disputed elections have brought to the surface. The economy is one glaring example that we can readily cite. In fact, the entire social order is in tatters. And this broken society has nurtured the politics that we have, marked by hatred, intolerance, greed, and an insane pursuit of power. The Pakistan we know is in the process of being turned upside down.

Yes, this can be a great story to be told by a writer who can grasp the epic scale of this tragedy. After all, we are the fifth largest country in the world in terms of population, with more than 60 percent of its people below the age of 30 – a vast multitude that is mostly deprived of education and any kind of social protection.

At one level, this is a story of two dynasties and one dynast, buffeted by a variety of rudderless factions. There is this impression that these leaders have generated a high wave of political enthusiasm that has resulted in a bitter struggle for power. But the elections held on February 8 had a lower turnout than in 2018 – coming down from 52 per cent to about 48 per cent. If the elections were rigged, the actual voters would have been less than even 48 per cent.

There are many twists in the tale. Consider the incongruity of Maulana Fazlur Rehman consorting with a delegation of Imran Khan’s party. An entire volume can be based on Imran’s choice of Ali Amin Gandapur to become the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province where the PTI independents have a large majority.

Here is the spectacle of a leader who is passionately followed by so many educated and cultured people, including the DHA begums and emancipated young women, selecting one of the most misogynistic politicians in the country for the only post of authority his party has secured in these elections. From the point of view of telling an exciting story, Gandapur certainly has a colourful past.

There is so much more that breaks your heart. It is this scenario that makes me wonder if Pakistan is slipping into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Yes, I am invoking Franz Kafka, whose characters often faced absurd situations. His work is characterized by anxiety and alienation.

The expression ‘Kafkaesque’ describes a situation that is “extremely unpleasant, frightening and confusing”. Is this not the situation that we confront in Pakistan at this time?

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddinhotmail.com