Friday June 21, 2024

Repetitive and retributive

By Hussain H Zaidi
October 24, 2022

History is repetitive and nature is retributive. These are two of the most potent notions that have fired human imagination since the dawn of civilization.

Nemesis and karma are among the better-known doctrines of retribution. In Greek mythology, Nemesis was a goddess, who handed down happiness and misfortune on the strength of the actions that mortals performed. The retribution done by Nemesis was inexorable yet deserving. Even the most worldly-wise were duped into cutting their throats and the most self-assured were made to stumble.

As the myth goes, one of the mortals whose life was claimed by Nemesis was Narcissus, an impervious, handsome hunter, who didn’t care at all about others’ feelings. A soothsayer divined that he would have a long life provided he didn’t recognize himself. One day, the goddess led him down the garden path to a spring. When Narcissus saw his image in the waters, he fell in love with himself, was petrified with amazement, and eventually succumbed.

The doctrine of karma, which formed an important part of ancient Indian culture, states that a person’s past actions shape their future lives. In its modern and more popular version, karma is the belief that one can’t escape the consequences of one’s actions. Like Nemesis, karma rests on the principles of necessity and justice.

The repetitive view of history rejects the linear view of time and claims that both nature and society move in an alternating rhythm: the day following the night, love giving way to strife, republicanism ending up in Caesarism, Dark Ages followed by the Enlightenment, wreckage making the ground for rehabilitation, and the apocalypse breeding a new dawn, all in a circular pattern. In such a world, there is no progress but only transition, no development but only change. The cyclic view has found its most eloquent expression in the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Popularized in modern times by the philosopher Nietzsche, it assumes that in the ‘endless’ march of time, events are fated to recur in exactly the same fashion ceaselessly.

Sceptics point out that, as in case of other doctrines, the truth of the retributive-cum-repetitive view of history is at best contingent, not necessary. While at times events may seem to be characterized by circularity; this is only by coincidence. No two events, however outwardly similar, are identical – every moment is unique. By the same token, while individuals as well as societies may have to repay the debt – along with mark-up – incurred by their dark actions, there’s no logical reason they must do so. Virtue may be rewarded and wickedness punished but not necessarily.

Whether by necessity or by contingency, Pakistani politics represents a validation of the doctrines of repetition and retribution. Over the past 75 years, the country has alternated between democracy and dictatorship. The first eleven years of parliamentary democracy (1947-58) gave way to 13 years of dictatorship (1958-71). The following six years of civilian rule (1971-77) were followed by 11 years of a military regime (1977-88). For another eleven years (1988-1999), democracy, however weak, staggered on. During the 1990s, the then two major political leaders took turns in the exercise of power. Twice each was voted to the prime minister’s office and twice sacked. The next nine years (1999-2008) saw another military government at the helm. Although during the past 14 years, democracy has stayed the course, many argue this ‘house of cards’ is at best hybrid, always only a kick away from falling apart.

The management of the economy has also remained subject to a cyclic pattern, alternating between pro-growth and growth compression policies, resulting in periods of high but unsustainable growth followed by those of economic stagnation, which is equally unsustainable.

In another instance of the circularity that has characterized Pakistani politics, former prime minister Imran Khan and his party, the PTI, are back to the tactics they’re best known for – mob politics. Except for the three and a half years when he was in power, the maverick leader has taken to protests, dharnas, rallies and lockdowns as a matter of course, starting with a four-month sit-in in the capital’s busiest district in the second half of 2014.

Although it failed to pull the government down, the sit-in and the political uncertainty it generated did strike quite heavy blows to an already beleaguered economy. Since its ouster from power in April 2022, the PTI has been pressing for new elections. The precarious state of the economy and the devastating floods make a strong case against going to the polls any time soon. Yet the PTI believes it can, and should, force early elections at any cost and by any means including marching on Islamabad.

For years, Imran Khan remained the blue-eyed boy of the powers that be until he fell out with them. Earlier, another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had been cast in such a role and met a similar fate. Each protégé would sing praises for the mentors as long as the two were on the same page. Each turned vitriolic when the page tore apart – though Khan, true to his style, has minced no words in ranting and raving.

That said, politics is never a past and closed transaction. Nor do politicians, unlike bureaucrats – civil or in uniform – age and become irrelevant. While at times they may seem to dice with death, in reality they have nine lives, falling only to rice again. Hence, alliances and coalitions come into being, break down and are re-born. Conciliation is replaced with confrontation, which gives way to reconciliation. Sharif has already turned swords into ploughshares. Khan will verily do so, sooner or later. Woe betide those naive souls who labour under the impression that the fight is being waged for the sake of principles and is thus never-ending.

In the circular movement of the wheel of politics lies retribution, not in the sense of an irrevocable fall – as one can always beat the rap or mend fences – but in the sense of being shown the terrible rabidity of one’s views or pulling the lid off one’s real face. In opposition, for example, one may proudly dismiss borrowing as a cardinal curse, a negation of national honour, which must be avoided even at the cost of starving people. But when in government, one may have to eat one’s word.

While in the government, one may clamour that civil servants owe allegiance to the state, law and the constitution and not to the ruling party and warn civil servants against obeying unlawful commands coming from the top. However, the same person when in the government may also use the bureaucracy as a political tool. His government may not be different from others in obliterating the distinction between a lawful and unlawful command and taking to task officials who insist on making such a distinction.

It is easier to style oneself as the champion of the inalienable political right to protest and of all other democratic values as long as one is in the opposition. That right must be exercised even if doing so casts a long shadow over the economy or puts a large segment of society through the hoop. A government which places trammels on the right to protest and freedom of expression for whatever reasons is seen as despotic to the bone. All such democratic pretensions, however, may come to naught when the same person or the party assumes control of state machinery. They’d frown upon the right to dissent, put the shackles on freedom of expression, and make it loud and clear that the state has an obligation to stop the agitators should they go over the line.

Finally, people may endlessly brand their opponents as thieves, dacoits, and looters, enjoy watching cat-and-mouse games, and rejoice when the latter are disqualified, convicted of being on the wrong side of the law, or are otherwise deprived of a level-playing field. However, in the game of fluctuating fortunes, the erstwhile beneficiaries may find themselves at the receiving end until the wheel of politics turns full circle.


Twitter: @hussainhzaidi The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.