Monday August 15, 2022

The morning after

September 27, 2018

It is a fact that few outside Pakistan consider the most recent electoral exercise to have been even-handed. Even partisans benefiting from the outcome, while offering various justifications, hardly dispute the crux of such objections. Does this come at a price? And, if so, what kind of price?

First, there is a clear loss of institutional credibility. While in the past such developments were attributed to individuals, the narrative this time is depersonalised and centred on institutional symbols. There are slogans in the air that have never been heard before.

Second, there are many Pakistanis who see some immense good happening because the previous dispensation was allegedly so corrupt and anti-national that five more years for them would have spelled disaster for the country. So this predicament arguably legitimised the replacement of the predecessors with an upright and patriotic team. If the expectations of this segment of the population are proven to be wrong yet again, it could lead to a crisis of credibility for the power structure. Third, the probability that the above-mentioned expectations are fulfilled is not very 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 can keep them in check. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the reality that no leader, however upright personally, can defy the structural imperatives that define a system and circumscribe the room for manoeuvre.

To start with, there are structural imperatives that push from below in a society characterised by widespread poverty and the dependence 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 characterised 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 stand very much reduced to the status of princes in pre-Independence India who were rulers only in name while power was exercised by the British; they can revel and indulge their egos in their restricted domains while the real business is conducted elsewhere.

It is not the fault of the politicians, just a reflection of the reality on the ground. To their credit, the princes 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 – which 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 credibility. Already, we are in a surreal situation in which every organ of the state is carrying out 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, one that is poorly educated and trained and which is looking for employment to survive. What will happen when its 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 would flee to foreign abodes – Dubai, Jeddah, Paris, London – and the parties that have been mainstreamed as part of electoral engineering would 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.

The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.