Nov 8, 2009

Pathology of political chaos

it is important to constantly guard against the tendency to think of Pakistan in pathological terms

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

It appears that the impending political brawl over the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) has been averted, at least for now. Before the NRO there was the Kerry-Lugar bill, and before that the sugar crisis, and so on and so forth. Recurring bouts of sensationalism have become the most predictable feature of this country's politics. Soon we will all be talking about the next 'big thing', thanks in large part to the hype generated by the (primarily electronic) media.

This is not to suggest that we are not living through quite extraordinary times. After almost 40 years, the state's policy of patronising 'holy war' is imploding in quite spectacular fashion, at least in part because our imperial patron is insisting on a direct presence in our backyard. While this erstwhile friendship gone sour continues to unravel in gruesome and cynical fashion, our own homegrown military empire continues to belligerently refuse to share meaningful power with civilian elites. If this were not enough, Baloch alienation has reached almost irretrievable proportions, while ethnic tensions in general are deepening across the board.

Having said this, it is hard to remember a time when Pakistan was anything but dysfunctional. The state has been wracked by internal contradictions since it was conceived, let alone created. Since it has emerged on the world map it has been a crucial site of global power rivalry, first during the Cold War and now in the so-called 'age of terror'. In a manner of speaking, Pakistan has always been the perfect getaway for the proverbial chaos junkie.

Of course this tortured history is hardly a cause for celebration. In fact it is important to constantly guard against the tendency to think of Pakistan in pathological terms. There is nothing intrinsic to the people or the land that prevents a break in the recurring cycles of political and social ferment. We are structurally encumbered, no doubt, but I think that as much as anything else, it is important that political chaos not be made into a self-fulfilling prophecy and instead that continuity and normalcy be allowed to take root.

What I am trying to say is that there appears to be, amongst considerable numbers of the 'opinion-making' elite, a clear proclivity towards intrigue and gamesmanship rather than (sometimes banal) political, economic and cultural matters that should be at the forefront of intellectual and media discourse. So, for instance, rather than creating mayhem over the 'threat to sovereignty' that is the Kerry-Lugar bill, columnists and TV anchors should pay much more attention to the virtual fiefdom that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has created for itself within the ministries of finance, commerce, agriculture, industries and production, petroleum and natural resources and more or less every other ministry there is.

The only discussion that takes place over the nature of the economic policy paradigm that prevails in Pakistan is over how many billions are needed from the IMF to stave off bankruptcy. There is nothing about the history of Pakistan's relationship with the IMF and its sister institutions, how since at least the late 1980s these institutions have micro-managed economic policy, that our precarious economic situation is due to, and not in spite of, these policies, etc. etc.

Notwithstanding the rather more visible role of American diplomats and generals in Pakistan, surely the tens of billions of dollars of debt owed to the international financial institutions (IFIs) are much more a threat to sovereignty than the measly one and a half billion that Senators Kerry and Lugar have promised?

If the right-wing zealots in the media and establishment have their way and Zardari is forced out of office on account of the various smear campaigns that have been orchestrated in recent times, will whatever dispensation that comes into place dramatically overhaul our economic policy paradigm? Instead of baying for the blood of individual political personalities, critics and political opponents should be asking questions about the sitting government's policies. For its part the bills that the government brings before the parliament should reflect people's actual concerns (in any case it put itself into a tight spot by trying to table the NRO bill).

I suspect that a significant majority of people in this country, which means those who live outside the metropolitan centres, are least concerned by the non-issues that are brought into the public spotlight due to media hype. The right-wing 'sovereignty' brigades attempting to create conditions for 'regime change' clearly have no message for the small or landless farmer who is concerned about the subsidies that the IMF is trying to scrap, or the power looms worker who is without work because textile exports are being suffocated by trade liberalization.

Yes there should be a politics of anti-imperialism, a politics against corruption, a politics that demands accountability of elected representatives. But what we witness in Pakistan on an almost daily basis is not a politics that relates to the daily needs and aspirations of working people or a politics that represents a meaningful challenge to the multiple structural pillars of status quo. Indeed media hype actually precludes such a politics from emerging because there is no depth to the debates that take place on TV or the sensationalisms that are bandied about in newspaper columns.

To the extent that there are people that attempt to introduce substance to political debates, or even political constituencies that do more than mere posturing, the media does not cover them. A good example is the almost unanimous opposition being expressed by the almost 100,000 workers of Pakistan Railways (PR) to privatisation. PR is the biggest state-owned enterprise in the country, employs more workers than any other public entity and is one of the commanding heights of the economy. No TV anchor invites lawmakers to sit and debate PR's planned privatisations, or to engage with PR unionists who have reasonably well developed positions on why privatisation is unacceptable.

It is high time that we stop asking rhetorical questions like "can our politicians deliver?" Our politicians have to be made to deliver on issues that matter. Instead of thinking along these lines, too many people simply demand change at the top, which changes very little. Democracy is not just about elections, or about other procedures. Procedures cannot produce change in society. Much more important are democratic attitudes, a commitment to democratising all elements of social life and the rejection of the pathology of political chaos that we stubbornly refuse to change.

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