How to deal with pseudo-important issues in Pakistan?

By Feisal H Naqvi

Let us try to recap some — just some — of what has recently happened.

A real estate billionaire first meets secretly with prominent members of the media to persuade them that he is being blackmailed by the son of the chief justice of Pakistan, then goes public with documentary proof once the chief justice himself takes suo motu notice of the whispers. After the CJP recognises the impropriety of hearing a case relating to his own son, the remaining members of the bench hurriedly dispose of the matter, claiming that the allegations of corruption stand rebutted by Malik Riaz’s own statement that he never got any relief. Sure. Whatever you say, your Lordships.

Meanwhile, back in media-land, the affair of the errant son touches off a separate firestorm as television anchors accuse each other of being on the take. The mud-slinging then reaches epic heights once a much-hyped interview of Malik Riaz by two prominent anchors is revealed through leaked footage not only to have been carefully  ‘planted’ but the subject of instructions from personalities such as the prime minister’s son. The jhut-put of the anchors then escalates into a war of TV channels as Dunya (employer of the two disgraced anchors) attacks Geo (the self-appointed standard bearer for media ethics), while Geo’s cartoon avatar recites mangled poetry in praise of the chief justice.

At this stage, much of the country has reached the point where all it wants to see are heads on a pike. It doesn’t matter whose heads; just some heads, so that ordinary citizens can assume that this nonsense is over and we can go back to worrying about stuff which really counts, like people being blown up in Peshawar, target killings in Karachi, the Taliban’s ban on polio vaccinations and … hey, look — it’s Meher Bokhari in librarian guise, defending herself against being a sell-out.

Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, the irreducible complexity of our politics and our desire to impose simplistic narratives on what is basically a giant mess. In light of which, here are some of the various storylines currently on offer.

The PPP version — Our people have sacrificed so much for democracy. Their sacrifices must not be allowed to be in vain. The PPP is the only true national party in Pakistan. Attacking PPP leaders is the same as attacking democracy. The sovereignty of parliament must be respected.

The Geo/PML-N version — Our people have sacrificed so much for an independent judiciary. Their sacrifices must not be allowed to be in vain. The judiciary is the only functioning institution left in Pakistan. Attacking judges or their children is the same as attacking the judiciary. The independence of the judiciary must be respected.

The GHQ version — Our people have sacrificed so much for an independent Pakistan. Their sacrifices must not be allowed to be in vain. The army is the only functioning institution left in Pakistan. Attacking the army is the same as attacking Pakistan. The integrity of Pakistan must be defended.

The Zaid Hamid version — Our people have sacrificed so much for an Islamic state. Their sacrifices must not be allowed to be in vain. Can somebody please find me a white horse? And in the meantime, please donate heavily to my think-tank.

The one common theme behind all of these narratives is that a simplistic analysis begets a simplistic solution. In other words, all of our problems first get reduced to the level of  “two legs bad” after which a solution at the level of  “four legs good” is provided.

The answer, self-evidently, is for people to realise that our problems cannot be reduced to a single solitary factor. Only then will the door be opened for a more nuanced understanding of problems and a more nuanced appreciation of their solutions.

All well and good, you may respond. But if wishes were horses, Zaid Hamid would be leading a cavalry charge into Srinagar at this moment. How do we get people to look past the rubbish being shoved into their faces?

Broadly speaking, there are two competing answers.

The first answer is that nothing needs to be done. Instead, Pakistanis will figure it out for themselves because they are no dumber than the people of any other country. All we lack is experience in dealing with the kind of shysters the Almighty has seen fit to inflict upon us. Like people in other countries, we too, will eventually learn to elect better rulers.

The second answer is that “we” — as in the educated, literate, newspaper-reading population of this country — cannot trust the uneducated, illiterate population. And so, we need to forget about democracy, go back to some form of technocratic rule with token participation for the masses and gradually transition to full democracy once the fundamentals of a civilised politics have been established.

This debate is as old as Pakistan. The only difference now is that many people, myself included, thought the events of 2007 and the return of democracy had finally decided this debate. Now, I am not so sure.

As I write this column on a searingly hot Sunday afternoon, my part of Lahore is into its fourth hour of load-shedding. My UPS died half an hour ago and what residual optimism I have left is slowly evaporating in the heat.

It may be that the return of electricity to my quarters will help dissipate the pall of gloom. But what about the many for whom the heat will remain uninterrupted?

In many ways, the debate over authoritarian intervention in government resembles the debate over intervention in economies. Free-market fundamentalists argue that the only cure for a dysfunctional economy is to leave it alone because, in the long-run, the market corrects itself. The classic answer to that was given by Keynes who acidly noted, “In the long-run, we are all dead.”

Similarly, fans of popular governance argue that the only cure for bad democracy is more democracy while supporters of technocratic regimes note that history’s progress may be too slow for our liking.

At least for now, I am still hanging in the pro-democracy camp. But I wonder how long the rest of my countrymen are prepared to be patient.

The Express Tribune

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