RULE of thumb: the wilder, woollier and wackier it gets, the less it all means. And this week was a whole lot of wild, woolly and wacky. The JIT fought back, the PML-N piled on — it was vicious and entertaining, ugly and amusing. But it probably didn’t move the needle much. The allegations this week were stunning because, stripped bare, they were an ISI versus IB face-off. That’s the kind of stuff that can end governments. This week, all it seemed like was a bit of schoolyard squabbling. The IB is disrupting a super-duper investigation, an investigation the ISI has lent a representative to. The chutzpah! Messy continuity — it shouldn’t just be within reach, it should have been the only option by now. But it’s not. And the investigatory lot, with no less than two representatives of the boys, is accused of spying on the prime minister. Dirty tricks! It didn’t — couldn’t — stick. The problem: it was just more controversy in an already great big stew of controversy.
The JIT process had already been tainted and the N-League had already whinged a whole lot. And when it all got swallowed up by the spectacle of Nawaz presenting himself for questioning, more of the fright was sucked out. Legally, the reason we got here in the first place was because the majority three on the bench of five were queasy about using a bunch of petitions and suo motu powers to oust an elected PM. If they were queasy then, all the shenanigans around the JIT can have only made them queasier. So the needle probably didn’t move much this week. But there is a reason to be afraid. We are in uncharted territory. A third consecutive, on-time, on-schedule, full-term election has never happened before. By themselves, the combination of uncharted territory and familiar terrain should yield the usual Pakistani outcome: a messy kind of survival. Possibly because Nawaz seems to have learned something from the ’90s. Back then, the N-League needed the PPP to destroy itself and vice versa.
This time, the PTI seems willing, but the N-League not — at least not enthusiastically. And possibly because of a post-Musharraf decision by the boys: don’t let this democracy thing get out of hand, but don’t snuff it out either. And slipping and sliding as we are towards a third consecutive full-term election, a twin danger has emerged. The democratic transition has stalled. That’s the N-League’s fault. Simultaneously, a violent kind of politics is asserting itself. That’s the PTI’s fault, at least in part. Looking back, the transition to democracy has stalled since the 18th Amendment. We may have escaped our periodic IMF embrace since and Nawaz may have built a lot of roads and erected a bunch of megawatts, but the record is fairly clear: Zero reforms; a resurgence of anti-democratic and democracy-sceptical opinion and a political class which sees democracy as primarily an electoral exercise.
Sure, Nawaz is desperate to push a game-changing foreign policy, but being slapped back there repeatedly isn’t an excuse for domestic failure. Ten years into the transition, we’re stuck in neutral. By itself, because of the institutional decision of the boys to reject takeover, that wouldn’t necessarily imply disaster. But this week has given us another peek into what could lie ahead: an election season of vicious partisanship and extreme media and political rhetoric that could cause everything to come unstuck. It would take some hubris to suggest the Ayub election in the mid-’60s, the Bhutto election in the late ’70s or the Zia election in the mid-’80s can be overtaken in bitterness and viciousness by 2018. But between a metastasising rabidness in TV land, an unhinged social media and a no-holds-barred politics practised by the PTI, 2018 could turn terribly ugly.
By arrangement with Dawn