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November 6, 2019

The wheel of politics


November 6, 2019

History repeats itself and nature has an inbuilt system of retribution. These are two of the most potent doctrines that have fired human imagination since the dawn of civilization.

In Greek mythology, for instance, the goddess Nemesis inexorably handed down happiness and misfortune to mortals on the strength of the actions that they performed. Even the most worldly-wise were duped into cutting their throat and the most self-assured were wimped out of making the right choice. The repetitive view of history rejects the linear view of time and claims that both nature and society move in an alternating rhythm.

In such a world, there is no progress but only transition, no development but only change. This cyclic view has found its most eloquent expression in the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Popularized in modern times by Nietzsche, it assumes that in the ‘endless’ march of time, events are fated to recur ceaselessly.

Sceptics point out that, as in the 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 follow a circular pattern, this is only by coincidence. No two events, however outwardly similar, are identical – every day is a new day. By the same token, while individuals as well as societies may have to repay the debt – along with interest – incurred by their dark actions; there’s no logical reason they must do so. Virtue is 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. The case for repetition is obvious enough.

To seek validation of the retributive view of history, we need to go back only slightly more than five years in time. It’s 2014. An elected government, which is less than one-and-a-half years old, is challenged by two political parties, the PAT and the PTI.

Their strategy was simple: bring normal life to a standstill, make the economy bleed and force the prime minister to step down. Whether the grounds for their protests were justified or baseless remains debatable to date. Likewise, the view that a popularly elected government should be brought down by putting together a mob has had both its exponents and opponents. Both the PTI and the PAT, however, were absolutely sure that either had an impeccable case against the government and that the mode of their protests was out-and-out democratic.

Although at one stage the prolonged PAT-PTI sit-ins seemed only a whisker away from achieving their objective, in the end they couldn’t topple the government. That said, the protests were not inconsequential. They left the government much weaker and threw both the economy and governance into a tailspin, ushering in loses worth billions. However, more than that, the two parties demonstrated that an elected government can be shown the door, or at the very least forced to cave in, by bringing on the roads a few thousand people, thus setting aside the very foundations on which democracy rests: elections, the judiciary, the legislature, the elected government. Mob politics had set in.

Three years later, a religious party, pleading a different but a remarkably sensitive matter, staged a two-week sit-in of a few hundred people at the cusp of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad and forced the government to capitulate to its demands. Mob politics was thriving.

During those years when he was too close yet too far from the prime minister’s office, it was a key component of Imran Khan’s narrative that protests, dharnas, rallies and lockdowns were citizens’ inalienable political rights in a democratic polity.

The 2018 elections reversed the roles of the leading political players. The PTI formed government, while the PML-N and its allies had to sit in the opposition. But the electoral outcome was disputed. With two successful precedents of mob politics before them, it was only a matter of time that the losing and disillusioned leadership would set out on that course. As Imran Khan’s two rivals were put behind bars, it was left to the leadership of smaller parties to fill the vacuum.

The role reversal upended worldviews as well. The demand for the prime minister’s head through mob politics, which was perfectly democratic and constitutional in their eyes back in 2014, has now turned the stomach of the PTI leadership and their apologists, who see it as a parlous threat to democracy, the economy and the nation and at the same time pleasing to the enemies of the country.

It may be his lust for power that drove Maulana Fazalur Rehman to march on Islamabad. But the same then goes for the 2014 dharnas and its leadership. The ruling party, which still defends its sit-in and attempted lockdowns, can’t have it both ways. It is show of strength rather than being right or wrong that settles the fate of a political movement.

Better late than never. It has finally dawned upon the PTI that mob politics has enormous social and economic costs; that the rights to assembly and expression can’t be exercised in an untrammeled fashion; that democracy, in contrast with mobocracy, is subject to rule of law and constitutionalism; and that mobocracy reduces elections and parliament and all other representative institutions to nullity.

If a government commanding a majority in parliament can be sacked by a mob, it doesn't matter the least whether a party fares good or bad on the electoral front, or whether rulers deliver the goods to the people. Whenever it is found to be expedient, a mob can be put together to pull the government down. But for all its demerits, mob politics is likely to stay, because these demerits are its very merits for those who can endure its rigours and are likely to gain from it.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi