Pakistan's leadership is embroiled in institutional clashes, petty squabbling and political scandals. So who is steering the ship?
For Pakistanis, the new year has been defined by episodes of a power struggle between the institutions and political parties that lay claim to being best suited to determine their collective fate.
One definitive moment was aired live on television recently, during a popular current affairs chat show. Cabinet minister Faisal Vawda, mocking the indecent haste with which the opposition backed a bill to extend the powerful army chief of staff’s tenure, placed a military boot on the table they were sitting at.
Exacting revenge for the hundreds of times, literally, that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (Movement for Justice) has been mocked as a puppet of the military, Vawda said the opposition had prostrated themselves before the ‘boot’ to gain concessions.
Clearly, he was alluding to reported behind-the-scenes meetings between the heads of opposition parties and a leading military figure, all focused on a “get Imran Khan” agenda. They are currently in the process of figuring out who will replace him and how - reliable sources have told every other political journalist and me in the country.
Meanwhile, the Lahore High Court has lifted the shadow of the treason conviction and death sentence passed last month against ailing UAE-based former military dictator Pervez Musharraf.
Like the National Assembly, which approved Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s second term without debate in 12 minutes, the learned bench immediately concurred with the arguments put forth by lawyers representing both the government and Musharraf.
The entire proceeding looked like a hasty retreat from the judiciary’s unprecedented burst of activism during the last month of Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa's tenure.
Meanwhile, the state’s stranglehold on the media and criticism on any forum has been tightened several notches. The Urdu language edition of Mohammed Hanif's award-winning satirical novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes was forcibly withdrawn from public sale, fulfilling the author’s prediction that it would take the state years to get the jokes he’d cracked about them.
Liberal journalists and activists critical of the military have found themselves engaged on social media by the military's chief spokesman, who's assignment has since been changed. Tweeting from a personal account, he has trolled them, quite literally, and then deleted his remarks, portraying them as public displays of large-heartedness.
The government, on the other hand, has been embroiled in a good old-fashioned sex-and-politics scandal. A couple of ministers have featured in explicit social media videos posted by a pair of young, female Tiktok personalities. They shot to stardom last year after filming their romp through the inner sanctum of the Foreign Office, an area that can only be accessed by people with top-level security clearance.
Viewed collectively, this reads like the script of a sitcom starring Charlie Sheen. Vawda’s televised boot-stunt, rather than a one-off act of attention-seeking, typifies the shared mindset of Pakistan’s ruling class: narcissistic, tribal and uncaring about the broader ramifications of their actions.
One of them is the goldfish-bowl view of the world presented by the media and social media activists. It took them several days to highlight the threat of war in neighbouring Iran, following the US' assassination of Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani, because they were preoccupied with the Tiktok scandal. Even then, it only became newsworthy after the military made it so.
Considering that it coincides with the uncertain state of US-Taliban negotiations on Afghanistan, and the clear and present danger of another conflict with India over Kashmir, Pakistan’s decision-makers should have been singularly focused on the threats to national security looming on both its flanks.
That should have been the media’s primary preoccupation, too. Existential threats tend to attract better ratings and for longer than petty sex scandals, after all.
If Pakistan's people are ill-informed, it's because of the narratives propagated by their leaders and media, but they are not stupid. If such shenanigans had taken place in a time of plenty, they might have been inclined to ignore them, as was the case for most of Musharraf’s rule. Instead, they are on the receiving end of an eye-watering economic slowdown.
Instead of solutions, they see practically all holders of top public office behaving immaturely and irresponsibly. Many disguise it as cynical humour: Vawda’s boot antics have spawned a million memes. Most are disheartened and embarrassed, and very worried about their future.
Talking to the public in Islamabad and Lahore, I have repeatedly heard people say: Look, if the army is running the show, they might as well end this farce of democracy and take over. At least we’d know where we stand and we might get somewhere.
That somewhat cynical perspective has been reinforced by the opposition parties’ attempts to strike a deal with the military - supposedly leading to the overthrow of Khan’s administration and its prospective replacement by the leader of a party that has spent the last two years complaining that the military conspired to rig the last election.
It is now public knowledge that ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his family are primarily interested in survival and regaining a slice of the military’s pie. Party activists are outraged that their leader’s inspiring ‘respect the vote’ campaign of resistance was just a bargaining tactic.
In the smaller provinces, however, the power struggle between competing stakeholders in Islamabad and adjoining populous Punjab province, home turf for both the military and Sharif, has been viewed from a much darker perspective.
On many occasions, I have heard people in the southern province of Sindh express optimism that the apparently steadfast, imprisoned Sharif, as a Punjabi, had the power to confront the military and force it to accept the democratic civilian rule.
Instead, his party has demonstrated that it wants to strike a deal for the scraps from the military’s table, reinforcing the widely held sentiment in Sindh, Balochistan and even Khan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that power rests with Punjab’s political players.
Divided, disillusioned and disenfranchised, Pakistan looks like it is hurtling towards yet another damaging crisis. But none of its decision-makers seems to care.
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