The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.
This week the nation will be celebrating its 70th Independence Day. On the 14th of August we will all wrap ourselves in the glorious green and wholesome white of the national flag, ooze nationalistic fervour, and refresh whatever little we remember of our own history. Streets will be abuzz with honking motorbikes and decorated cars, and every visible private and government structure and building will carry the marks of shared joy.
This will remain so for a day, and then, on the 15th, we will be back to our normal state of blissful oblivion or prickly cynicism about unfulfilled hopes, broken promises and unmet targets. Some might find a more enduring optimism from the high dose of patriotism of the day gone by and renew their faith in the future but most will relapse into their routine disallowing themselves the opportunity to lift their chins up, if only for a while.
Every year, and for many years, we have all seen the same ritual play out before our eyes, with all of us being part of its various acts – from flag flying to diving deep into the pool of nationalism, as if to check whether there is enough water to create a happy splash. Every year, and for many years, the aftermath of the celebrations of the 14th of August also remains the same: transient highs followed by consistent lows of the national morale. What we do on this day of thanks giving does not translate into a durable collective resolve to make a real difference to this land of ours. No fire is ignited. No flame burns. Dullness takes over. Heads hang in frustration. What explains this strange situation, this schizophrenia of the national mood, this bipolarity of attitude?
In one word, politics. Yes, politics – the same politics that we live, breathe, speak, debate, condemn, own, blast, and endure every day is what makes us act in this split fashion: dancing with joy one moment, and tearing our hair out the very next, soaring to the sky at one instance and falling in the depths of despair the next.
Of all the burdens that we carry, the political situation is the heaviest of them all. It sits atop everything that touches our lives, poisoning every thought, disrupting every stanza of the national anthem as we attempt to sing it in our heads. It has gnawed at our resolve, sapped our energies, and has given us the sense that this country is beyond fixing, that nothing will change here and everything will remain the same – forever, like some endless dark night that has no prospects of a moon sighting.
But to be fair, it is not politics per se that is the cause of our anomie. Politics is a good thing; it is the soul of vibrant societies. It is that revved up engine that takes nations forward, overcoming challenges on the way. The real issue is what we have done with politics in Pakistan since independence. It is that endless experiment with national political life whose consequences mar us in the third generation – sins of the past materialising in full in the present choking our future. That’s what the problem is.
Take a decade-wise look at the life journey of those fortunate enough to be born around the time Pakistan became independent. If anyone had kept a diary it would read like this:
The 1950s: can’t figure out whether we need a constitution or security, whether the US is a good feeder or the USSR, whether we ought to allow politicians to continue in their present role or let a strong man take over and fix everybody.
The 1960s: don’t know whether the strong man who has taken over can manage the country’s political uproars. Is Field Marshal Ayub Khan digging our collective grave by fomenting discontent and tightening the steam valve as he imposes his presidential fiats from the top? Is Fatima Jinnah to be trusted or the officially constructed Military League pitted against her? Will we defeat India and win lasting laurels or will the enemy succeed? Will the strong man survive or politically die at the hands of populists like Mujib and Bhutto?
The 1970s: now that the strong man is no more along with United Pakistan, should we allow Bhutto to continue his march of populism in the reduced Pakistan, or cut him at the knee by backing the motley crew opposition that itself is backed by the generals? Will Bhutto live to fight another day, or will he die an unnatural death? And if he dies an unnatural death, will there be new elections or a long phase of military rule?
The 1980s: now that Bhutto is dead and so is the prospect of elections, should we stand in queue to be baptised as born again Muslims with Jihadi fervour? Should we endorse criminalisation of protest against Ziaul Haq or join his new brand of politics that is meant to create a pliant order wilting and waving at his presidential command? Should we take his love affair with Washington to be a permanent thing or a marriage of convenience to be broken at the convenience of the sole superpower?
The 1990s: now that the marriage of convenience has been broken at the convenience of the sole superpower and there is no one to complain since the great Islamic Warrior is dead in his C-130, should we believe that the new political government is fully empowered or should we assume that the mighty Ghulam Ishaq Khan representing the almighties of Pindi is a better bet for the future of this country? Should we back his decision to sack elected governments thinking that they were useless at any rate or should we insist to ourselves that both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif fully deserved the treatment they got at the hands of Ishaq and Farooq Leghari? Should we ever repose faith in parliamentary democracy or should we welcome another saviour to somehow show us the way?
2000: Now that the saviour has gate-crashed into power, and been catapulted into global prominence by the events of 9/11 and President Bush, should we put our eggs of expectations in his basket and banish forever from our hearts and minds old fools and cowards who ruled us once? Or should we keep the possibility open that the saviour might turn out to be a self-defeating dunce who looks smart not because of the grey matter he has but for the khaki he wears? Should we back him as a politician now that he is out of uniform or think that it is fair business for those whom he has exiled to come back and chuck him out? Will the new PPP government last or will it be broken into pieces by another political experiment whose departing premise is that its head Asif Ali Zardari is pure bad news and even though he has been allowed to become the president, he should have no role in national politics?
2010-2016: now that somehow the PPP has completed its term should we assume that Nawaz Sharif will also complete his term? Will Imran Khan succeed in dislodging him through his permanent protests, backed permanently by permanent powers that don’t let anybody be? Will Nawaz outlast General Raheel Sharif or will General Raheel Sharif last forever?
Now this is one heck of a silly diary. It shows no purpose, no direction, no national aim – just global and individual interests interfacing to produce events that are fascinating to report but totally useless in creating a reassuring narrative with predictable outcomes.
If an average Pakistani looks baffled even as he wears flag-stickers on his face it is because he is in the grip of the ghosts of past political experiments that haunt him every day. And if he is to return to his usual scepticism about the future on the 15th of August, he should be forgiven.
The national political diary of suicidal experiments isn’t full yet. There is always another blank page waiting to record another terrible turn of events. All in the name of Pakistan.
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