Apparently, this country will finally hold elections on February 8 next year. I must be excused for saying ‘apparently’ because if there’s one thing that defines our collective existence in this polity, it is uncertainty.
Why should I feel uncertain when the election date has been announced? Well, partly because in the absence of any rules of the game, which is usually the state in which this state finds itself, institutions don’t work according to constitutional, legal and normative standards. That vacuum is both created by the exercise of power outside the framework of the constitution and then filled by it. In that sense, power first destroys the inclusive rules of the game and then gets down to creating its own exclusionary rules.
The other reason for my uncertainty is not about elections per se but the post-election landscape. By all indicators, the dispensation they throw up will likely fail to restore to this diverse polity the balance that flows from inclusive rules. In other words, the future of this polity will remain as uncertain post-elections as it is in the run-up to them.
The problem with democracy’s form without its substance should be obvious to everyone. Elections, in a basic sense, are central to democracy because all contestants are supposed to draw their support from the electorate, the people who can vote in or vote out political parties. They send their representatives to provincial and federal legislatures and entrust them with making laws and running the country.
The army leadership has decided that it will bend every rule — legal and constitutional — to ensure that former Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf do not return to power.
However, the exercise becomes more complex and less democratic when we realise that the very presence of political parties and their candidates — essential to democratic activity — also straitjacket voters’ choices in a political landscape that is barren of ideas. That problem has vexed many a social scientist. In Pakistan’s case it is exacerbated by external and extra-constitutional actors (read: army leaderships) who seek to rig the game to get the desired result. To that extent the voter’s choice, already structurally constrained, becomes meaningless for the most part.
I don’t have to present every fact, every statistic, every press conference and every arrest since May 9 this year to establish a simple reality: the army leadership has decided that it will bend every rule — legal and constitutional — to ensure that former Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf do not return to power. Efforts to that end have become so blatant, even ludicrous that there is not even the pretence of a fig leaf or sophistication.
Since sophistication of thought does not come easy to the partisan, let me explain that the guiding issue here is not whether Mr. Khan is or can be the saviour that many think he is. The principle here is constitutional probity and the unconstitutional exercise of power by the army leadership to bring the weight of the system down on Mr. Khan and his party. Ironically, the efforts being expended to decimate Mr. Khan show, as nothing would, that he remains popular.
Corollary: rig the system. Former PTI leaders have been coerced into either leaving the party and politics altogether or forced to join jerry-rigged entities like Istehkam-e Pakistan Party, an IPP which is likely to damage Pakistan more than the IPPs of yesteryears.
In the field and especially during an armed conflict, cannibalising equipment and jerry-rigging are not only desirable but necessary. They denote innovation and improvisation. That cannot be said for political machinations: cannibalising and jerry-rigging only give us ugly politics and an uglier polity.
Since this playbook has been used by the army repeatedly through this polity’s often unfortunate history, I might have said that the current leadership would have done well to learn from the past. But I won’t because as the cartoonist Tom Toro said, “those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” So, taking the historical route is useless either way.
And yet, given what history and experience have told us about such machinations, interventions and experimentation, one cannot but point out that what did not work before is unlikely to work now. Also, that entities — whether societies or states — can take such beatings only up to a point. Societies develop fractures that refuse to heal, sometimes resulting in violence and chaos. States, which have become permanent under the United Nations system survive, but barely.
Those who are benefiting from the current power dynamics were once its victims. Before they feel chuffed by a victory that awaits them, they need to think hard about the principal contradiction.
To think that such experiments are done for the greater good of the state is delusional, to put it politely. Any comprehensive definition of national security necessarily begins with the citizens for a simple reason: what’s the point of having a graveyard secured like Fort Knox? What kind of polities did Latin American and other juntas ruled over? Nor is this a rhetorical question. There’s no point in being part of a state, any state, where the citizen’s life and rights are expendable on the pretext of some mythical conception of national security that is only understood by an authoritarian elite and can only be maintained by keeping the people in a panopticon.
In that sense, the coming elections would require discussions on the legitimacy and output of that exercise, given how the pitch is being queered against Mr. Khan and his party. Those who are benefiting from the current power dynamics were once its victims. Before they feel chuffed by a victory that awaits them, they need to think hard about the principal contradiction.
They won’t, though. There’s no use for me to give op-ed-style advice when I know full well that what I am proposing will not happen for a number of reasons, not least because stupidity is built into our intelligence. It is not about being dumb, as Austrian novelist Robert Musil argued because dumbness is straightforward, almost ‘honourable’. Stupidity, on the other hand, since it is most remarkable among the smartest is really dangerous.
Before I sign off, let me quote from Musil’s 1937 lecture in Vienna, titled On Stupidity:
"If stupidity were not confusingly similar to progress, ability, hope and improvement, then no-one would want to be stupid. That was in 1931: and no-one, surely, would go so far as to doubt that the world has seen a great deal of improvement since then!”
Darwin be praised!