One of Toms Hanks’ first television appearances was as a stoned-out-of-his-gourd Harvard student who spends all of his time blissfully staring at a lava lamp. The bit I remember is when somebody switches off the lava lamp and Hanks wails, “So, what are we supposed to do now?”
I mention this because in the past few weeks, the usually high temperature of Pakistan’s feverish politics seems to have subsided somewhat. If nothing else, newspaper audiences are now no longer being assailed with dramatic headlines announcing the imminent demise of the PPP government. Whether this is because of the 18th Amendment non-verdict or the election victory of Asma Jahangir in the Supreme Court Bar elections is unclear. But my question is this: so what are we supposed to do now?
Let me give some more context to my query. Since the PPP’s election in February 2008, Pakistan has lurched from one crisis to the next. In the beginning, the issue was the restoration of the Chief Justice. When the Chief Justice was finally restored in March 2009, the focus shifted to the Federal Government. First came a trickle of stories about corruption and mismanagement; then a sequence of verdicts in which the Supreme Court and the Federal Government began to establish increasingly antagonistic positions; still later came the last breathless stage in which the departure of Zardari & Co. seemed but one suo motu away.
In the middle of this drama, the ordinary incidents of governance became hopelessly irrelevant. Instead, the overriding issue became the debate about whether it was better to suffer an outrageously incompetent government or invite the army to come and rescue us. That debate is finally over. And at least in my case, the fact that there is now no real likelihood of a midterm change clarifies matters considerably. Because if governance is to improve – as it must – it can now only be done through the ordinary incidents of democracy. In other words, I can either work with the government we have or suffer my lot in silence and wait for the next election.
Leaving aside the impact of this realisation, the bigger question is whether the removal of the threat of impending departure will have any effect on the PPP government and its mode of operations. If news reports are to believed (which is a hazardous thing to do), most PPP appointees have governed till date on the basis that there will be no tomorrow, and so one might as well grab all that can be grabbed today. My favourite (but entirely unconfirmed) story in this regard is of the PPP MPA who stood up at the recent Governor’s House meeting in Lahore and complained about how the only way he – repeat, a PPP MPA – could get an electricity connection for his tubewell was by paying a Rs. 1 million bribe.
To be fair, the PPP may well have had some justification for its grab-and-run approach till date. Both of BB’s governments were not permitted to last out their full terms and, as already noted, the current federal government has spent much of its term on the verge of a constitutional breakdown. On the other hand, it is not entirely implausible that the PPP has deliberately sought out a path of confrontation to precipitate a forced departure and preserve its status as the perpetual victim of the Establishment. Either way, whether through good luck or bad, the PPP seems to have no option now but to complete its term.
If I was an optimist, my view would be that the PPP brain trust will now start dealing rationally with the potential consequences of a full-term election. The PPP would then start concentrating less on lining its pockets and focus more on dealing with Pakistan’s governance problems. Yes, those problems are difficult. But in the absence of any achievements to show over a five-year term, the PPP really should realise that (a) it will be difficult for it to seek votes next time either on a sympathy basis or on an anti-establishment basis, and (b) the jiyala vote is steadily diminishing.
Unfortunately, my optimism is in hibernation these days. I now have very limited faith in the ability of the PPP to fix itself. A large part of me hopes I am wrong because socially liberal secularists like me really have no other place to go. But even socially liberal secularists have their limits, and if things don’t change by the next election, my vote and I will go elsewhere. Democracy may or may not be the best revenge. But it is the only one I can have.
This column first appeared in Pakistan Today on 11 November 2010.