By Cyril Almeida
For all the transparency of what’s being done — transparency at least for anyone who cares to look and knows where to look — there’s been a mystery at the heart of it all along: what the hell are they thinking?
Seriously, what the hell are they thinking?
Take any part of it. This business of herding Nawaz out of the political arena. Sure, they’ll probably succeed. It’s not like it hasn’t been done before. For every PM, there’s 20 waiting in the wings. Willing to sell their mothers if necessary.
And this time they’ve been positively spoiled for choice: Imran, Shahbaz, a no-name Sanjrani — so many different ways to go, so many desperate to be patted on the head and don the robes they’ve been taught to crave.
But ouster comes at a cost and it needs to deliver something. Whoever dreamt up this scheme, this particular way, this slow, anguished exit for Nawaz ought to be stood out in the sun until his boots melt.
There’s a shuddering dysfunction at the heart of everything political at the moment.
Controlled democracy was working just fine and the possibility of a breakthrough with India wasn’t exactly high. In any case, there’s always the, ah, fallback option if it looks like there’s a danger of peace breaking out between India and Pakistan.
But someone wasn’t able to leave good enough alone. And look at the mess it’s created.
This is not normal. We’re all slightly loopy and a little crazy even at the best of times, but there’s a shuddering dysfunction at the heart of everything political at the moment.
The only thing normal is Imran peacocking around like he’s already PM when everyone around him is still trying to piece together a winning electoral mosaic. It’s almost endearing, reassuring. Good on Imran.
But the rest is an ugly mess. Dismantling political parties is never pretty, but it’s a whole different kind of messy when the chap this is all about is running around lobbing grenades.
By now Nawaz should have been in jail. And if that wasn’t the plan, it may have to quickly become the plan. Because in this wackiest of times another wacky, improbable thing seems to be happening:
Instead of Nawaz’s verbal flame-throwing causing him to quickly self-immolate, he seems to be setting fire to hard-to-reach corners of the state. And once that erupts, it’s all bets off again.
Because if Nawaz’s perceived sins and intentions were justification enough for his slow ouster, what kind of response will his slash-and-burn approach bring? There is more menace and danger lurking than the shrill parade of clowns seems to be aware of.
God save us all.
And this muzzling business. Clamping down on speech, disappearing dissent, dragging a 21st-century electronic media back to the days of a mono state channel, behaving with the print dinosaur like it’s the 1980s again — you can see what they’re trying to do.
And you can see why it’ll fail.
Fail not in the sense of knocking out some individuals or toppling a mighty media house or two or three. And if you’re an unlucky so-and-so who’s thought to try and practise dissent, they’ll probably get a bunch of you.
But it will fail from a systemic perspective, which is the only perspective that ought to matter to those trying to fix the system a certain way.
Take this business with the book. Who cares what the book says or why it’s written. That’s not really the point. It’s an old joke among the very few readers of books in the country that if you look hard enough in the fewer still book stores left, you can usually find whatever you’re looking for.
Subversive, irreligious, scandalous — most of it is available, as long as it falls in the mainstream and is relatively well known. Not because there’s a policy of tolerance and looking-the-other-way, but because no one in a position of enforcement and policy reads books.
Theoretically, they could set up an in-house unit to read books and raid bookstores. But we can already guess that would be too much trouble and a doomed project. It’s just not in our or the system’s DNA.
But the book matters because the book was inevitable. If not this book, this author or even a book at all, someone else, some other angle or some other medium. ’Cause no one really asked for this suffocating blanket and the country is too big and diverse to be patrolled and controlled minutely by the state that does exist.
Again, if they really set their minds to it, they could develop a system for thought and people control. There are models in the region that can be emulated and friends who may be eager to help. But there’s a problem apparent: to what end?
Until it’s obvious why it’s being done — in service of totalitarianism, monarchy or outright dictatorship perhaps — it’s hard to do effectively. A vaguely defined harder nationalism or meandering, uncertain turn to the religious hard right doesn’t cut it.
So who cares what the book says or why it has been written. It’s more important as a reminder that these are old debates and unresolved issues. Muzzling the media and hacking down the more reckless and audacious among the populace won’t make the debates go away.
This is a big, messy, argumentative and, yes, diverse place. It that’s seen as a problem by the some — and the some in power — there’s the knowledge of the many that changing it will require vast coercion and great violence. Another Zia, almost certainly.
And another Zia would immediately cast it as a war for the country itself.
So, really, what the hell are they thinking?
–Published in Dawn on May 27th, 2018.