The curse of irrelevance – Fahd Husain

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A MURDER most foul may have rattled Islamabad, but not those who draw political nourishment from the capital’s reservoir of power. The leaders would, it seems, prefer to be led.

The gruesome murder of Noor Mukaddam, daughter of a respected former diplomat, allegedly by Zahir Jaffer, scion of a business family, has sent shockwaves through the tight-knit Islamabad circle and triggered an outrage that has brought social media discourse to a boiling point. Everyone in this small town seems to know the murderer and the victim, or know of them, or know someone who knows them, or can relate to the families because of the dynamics of social stratification embedded in the DNA of this town that gyrates to the rhythm of power and privilege.

First there is the grisly murder itself, as well as all the aspects of the ‘who, why, how’ investigations being conducted by the Islamabad Police. In fact, there isn’t much to investigate since Zahir Jaffer is the only suspect in the murder and beheading of Noor Mukaddam in his home and is now in police custody. This leaves two angles of the horrific episode that are the cause of much debate — and much angst. First, why was a known violent and unhinged man not restrained through legal or other means from preying on women; and second, will he face the wrath of the law or escape the net because of the privilege he wields?

These two aspects are scaling up into larger societal issues of rampant misogyny, women’s rights, toxic social attitudes, systemic elite capture and the statutory existence of legal escape hatches for criminals with money and power. All these discussion points — pegged as they are today to the Islamabad murder — loop into reforms of various hues that governments are quick to promise and slow to deliver. Some are complex issues and divide society, like social and cultural attitudes towards gender disparity, while others are fairly straightforward in concept but twisted in implementation, like the equal application of law to the weak and the strong.

What they have in common is that they represent a collective social and political failure of governance — not in the sense that sans this failure there would be no more murders — but that they form a void that can easily be filled if the rulers exhibit the will and desire to do so using the powers of their offices and of their public mandate. And yet, far from this, what the chilling Islamabad murder has illustrated is something deeply troubling: the irrelevance of politicians on an issue that is driving national debate since the last three days.

The problem is grimmer than it sounds. Some ministers and sundry advisers have issued routine condemnations and text-based lamentations laced with ‘vows’ to bring the culprits to justice, but these miss the larger point ensconced within the debate. Few among the politicians from both sides of the aisle have bothered to wade into this raging discourse with anything that can be construed as meaningfully action-oriented. The domestic abuse bill? Silence. Need for tighter application of law? Silence. How to change social attitudes towards victims, and especially women? Silence. Need to end victim-blaming? Silence. What reforms are needed to ensure people with resources cannot buy their way out of a crime while the poor cannot? Silence.

This silence of the majority among the politicians — exceptions notwithstanding — is emblematic of the fear that drives these men and women into inaction; a fear of going against the accepted social grain; a fear of positioning against the flow of organic cultural biases; and a fear of swimming against a perceived tide even if changing the direction of the tide is one of their job descriptions as elected leaders of their communities. Fear, in essence, is a powerful de-motivator for those who believe their success lies in lazy public validation.

Nothing has illustrated this dilemma more than the news cycle of the last few weeks. The curse of irrelevance has hoisted itself upon the political leadership without much resistance. The swiftly evolving situation in Afghanistan is a reminder yet again that when it comes to issues that are slightly complex, and nuanced, and outside the realm of partisan simplicity, the politicians are found wanting. Parliament has yet to initiate a debate on Afghanistan. No one in the National Assembly and the Senate, it seems, wants to delve into this strategic matter because, well you know, strategic matters are better left to those who wield power over them.

Really?

The real answer may not provide much solace. There is a lack of something that makes the political leadership wary of wading into complex matters. Lack of understanding? Of interest? Of relevance? Of relatability? Or just a lack of collective capacity and will? The end result is the shrinking of space — self-inflicted, mind you — that politicians experience, and then complain of. On the contrary, the space that they willingly and happily occupy is the space that we are witnessing in the election campaign in Azad Kashmir. While the nation is grappling with the complexities of strategic matters like Afghanistan, and the ramifications of social, cultural and legal matters triggered by the gruesome Islamabad murder, the politicians are happy calling each other traitors, sellouts and Modi’s pals. That is the comfort zone they thrive in — far, far away from issues that demand much more than well-rehearsed and convenient attacks on rivals.

The cost attached to this shirking of responsibility is measured in the currency of irrelevance. Such irrelevance translates into a mismatch between the burden of their mandate and the weightlessness of their contribution. A system groaning under the dead weight of hollow promises finds it painful to shoulder the load of a leadership that is unable or unwilling to break out of its comfort zone.

In the capital today, the leaders are indeed happier to be led than lead.