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November 10, 2018
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Nemesis and karma

Opinion

November 10, 2018

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Since the dawn of civilisation, nemesis and karma have been two of the most powerful 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.

The doctrine of karma, which formed an important part of ancient Indian philosophy, states that a person’s past actions shape their future. Like nemesis, karma rests on the principles of necessity and justice. Central to both nemesis and karma is the view that human beings are destined to reap the harvest of their actions.

Until he was sworn-in as prime minister, Imran Khan’s politics was underpinned by a singular narrative that had many components. First, borrowing is a cardinal curse for a country, which it must avoid even in the event that the economy hangs by a thread. By the same token, a government that looks to foreign assistance is shorn of all sense of honour. In particular, Imran Khan would turn up his nose at the governments of the PPP (2008-2013) and the PML-N (2013-2018) that, as he put it, went on a borrowing spree.

Second, protests, dharnas, rallies and lockdowns are the inalienable political rights of citizens in a democratic polity, which they must exercise even if doing so casts a shadow over the economy or puts a large segment of society through the hoop. A government that places curbs on these rights, for whatever reasons, is despotic to the bone.

Third, civil servants owe allegiance to the state, the law and the constitution, not to the government of the day or the ruling party. The politicisation of the bureaucracy has thrown the institution into a tailspin. It is obligatory upon civil servants to cast aside unlawful commands from the top while the government must depoliticise the institution and ensure security of tenure for high-ranking officials.

Fourth, corruption lies at the bottom of most of Pakistan’s socioeconomic problems. For example, an increase in fuel prices and electricity tariffs is undergirded by corruption at the top, as the price differential ends up in the pockets of rulers.

True to his narrative, Imran Khan perfected the art of agitation politics. In the second half of 2014, he staged a four-month-long sit-in in the capital’s busiest district to protest alleged rigging in the 2013 general elections. The dharna put the economy under tremendous strain, caused immense inconvenience to the people, and forced the Chinese president to put off his visit to Islamabad. From time to time, he threatened to lock down all the major cities if his demands were not met. During the Islamabad dharna, he famously burnt his electricity bill and asked people not to pay taxes, as their hard-earned money wasn’t safe with a ‘corrupt’ government.

A year ago when the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) staged a sit-in on a highly sensitive issue, which brought life in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad to a standstill for more than two weeks, Khan’s party rubbed shoulders with the agitators. During Election 2018, the PTI made great play with the blasphemy issue.

By a freak of fate, after assuming office Imran Khan has found himself in a situation similar to that faced by his predecessors. The foremost question that his nascent government was confronted with was how to pull the economy out of the hole. It was expected that as a man of his word the new prime minister would rely on national resources and never opt for borrowing abroad. But as the illusion of bringing back billions of dollars that were allegedly siphoned off abroad and having rich Pakistani expatriates invest their wealth in the country exploded, the prime minister had to eat his words and seek foreign credit.

In keeping with its pre-polls pledges, the PTI government set up a commission to retool the bureaucracy. Every government since that of General Muhammad Ayub (1958-69) undertook such an exercise. Notwithstanding such efforts, the civil service has been reduced to a ramshackle organisation. Among the principal reasons for the institution’s rot is the political culture of power and patronage, which leaves no room for an independent civil service. Every government appoints men and women of its choice to important positions and wants them to carry out the orders of those in power, from an MPA/MNA right up to the top.

In the government’s book, the distinction between lawful and unlawful command doesn’t exist. The PTI has been no exception to this rule. In less than three months, the party’s governments at the centre and in Punjab have been taken to task at least twice by the apex court for arbitrarily showing the door to senior police officials. The PTI governments have not only punished ‘recalcitrant’ officials, but have also tried to justify the questionable actions. Civil servants have been publicly warned by the prime minister as well as federal and provincial ministers to fall in line. Good governance is hard to come by in such circumstances.

The PTI government has raised gas and oil prices as well as electricity tariffs. When the government is running a high fiscal deficit, its capacity to subsidise consumers shrinks. While it was in the opposition, the PTI would tear such arguments to shreds. Now that it is in the saddle, the party must have realised that difficult circumstances necessitate taking such unpopular decisions and that if people don’t pay utility bills or taxes it will make things worse for both the government and society.

On October 31, 2018, after the Supreme Court had acquitted a Christian woman of blasphemy charges, the TLP, the political face of the TLY, launched countrywide protests that threatened to shut down the country. Mercifully, the agitations terminated in three days.

During this brief period, it must have dawned upon the government that such protests have enormous social and economic costs, that the rights to assembly and expression can’t be exercised in an untrammeled fashion, and that democracy – in contrast with mobocracy – is subject to rule of law and constitutionalism. Although the government caved in to the TLP in the end, the prime minister hit the nail on the head when he warned agitators that the state has an obligation to stop those who go over the line.

The fact also is that the PTI has been instrumental in the rise of the TLP. Thanks to the PTI, politics has become largely a squalid affair in which demonising rivals, exhibiting zero tolerance for dissent and the ability to command mindless submission from supporters have come to be prized as the foremost virtues of a leader. The supreme leaders of both parties speak with a sense of no-holds-barred and parade themselves as being morally superior to other political leaders. Both put down the nation’s ‘dismal’ predicament to a singular cause – corruption in one case and departure from religion in the other – claim to be on a messianic mission and promise a heaven on earth.

As the myth goes, one of the mortals whose life was claimed by the goddess Nemesis’s curse was Narcissus, an impervious, handsome hunter, who didn’t care about other people’s feelings. A soothsayer divined that he would have a long life – provided he didn’t recognise himself. One day, the goddess led him to a spring. When Narcissus saw his image in the waters, he fell in love with himself and eventually died.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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