How to Understand Pakistan’s Politics: Political Darwinism

I'm getting quite a kick out of watching the entire cadre of our foreign policy pundits — from left to right — unable to pin the situation in Pakistan down. On Fareed Zakaria's (liberal leaning) Post Global website, Ali Ettefagh … Read More

By / November 14, 2007

I'm getting quite a kick out of watching the entire cadre of our foreign policy pundits — from left to right — unable to pin the situation in Pakistan down. On Fareed Zakaria's (liberal leaning) Post Global website, Ali Ettefagh called for the dissolution of Pakistan; our own Stephen Schwartz (no leftist he), on the other hand, said that Pakistan is part of a "global revolution of bourgeois democracy"; meanwhile, Mark Steyn concluded that Pakistan "can't be scripted"; while the usually well informed Mathew Yglesias didn't even offer an opinion, instead seeking out established experts in the field. There is a reason for this vast disparity of opinions about Pakistan: it is perhaps the most honestly-Darwinian political system we have encountered in recent times. It is not Iran (with its oligarchy), nor North Korea (with its god-king), or Ba'athist Iraq (with its genocidal-lord), nor Egypt (with its Arab strongman), nor Burma (with its junta). Pakistan is, basically, disorder unplugged; political pluralism on complete and utter crack.

The guiding principle in Pakistani politics is that there are no principles. "But isn't it like that everywhere?" comes the response. Of course, politicians everywhere are unprincipled, but in Pakistan unlike much of the Western world, there is absolutely no stigma attached to being unprincipled. It is not merely an expectation; its a duty. In the West, we expect our politicians to be unprincipled but give the veneer of honesty. Not so with Pakistan. In a country where for the longest time actresses were whores (because only whores were actresses), and mullahs were laughed at (because only failed human beings became mullahs), politics was a profession for the degenerate (because only the degenerate were politicians). As such, concepts like flip-flopping, and political accountability, and consistency, and hypocrisy were completely absent. The people were — and are — political pessimists (sense a little bit of in me?). That was why, for example, when within the course of four days, Nawaz Sharif, the exiled former prime minister first said he would not work with Bhutto, then the next day put out a letter saying he supported her democracy initiative but not enough to join it, and then the next day said he totally would work with her, no one batted an eyelash. In the West, such a change of opinions would get a politician disgraced. In Pakistan it is, appropriately, called "politics." Frankly, once you give into the honesty of the situation, it is quite liberating. You start to understand why every single person and institution is always engaged in "double-discourses" — for the simple reason that it is recognized that in politics there are no enemies, just friends who are temporary.

Thus we have, a right-wing soft-Islamist like Imran Khan, trying to lead student protests, get turned over to Musharraf's police by the hardline Islamists (who were wary of the "politicization" of the universities after spending three decades doing the same). Thus we have, Nawaz Sharif, who fifteen years ago stooped so low as to forge a grammatically incoherent letter in English to an American journalist in order to disgrace her, now hankering to work with Bhutto. Thus we have Bhutto suddenly becoming chummy-chummy with the lawyers and judges who until a week ago were her mortal enemies because they intended on reinstating the political corruption charges against her. Thus we have Bhutto's niece completely calling her out in the LA Times, because at one point Benazir (it is accepted by most pundits), had her own brother killed because he was becoming too intrustive. Thus we have Musharraf and Bhutto alternatively working with each other in a case of good-cop (she) bad-cop (he), and simultaneously hurling invective and arresting each other. Thus we have the history of Pakistani military — who were supposed to be fighting terrorists — also coddling and freeing them. Thus we have, that even as the country falls into what appears to be to everyone to be political turmoil, its prime minister just inked a $5 billion dollar deal with the UAE for an oil refinery — located where but in the most separatist province which is currently going before the International Court at the Hague to argue for its independence.

In the film, Blood Diamond, there is discussion of a word called "TIA." It means "This is Africa." Its what you say when everything is characteristically FUBAR. Pakistanis don't use an acronym, they just end all political discussions with a couplet, or a ghazal. This is the most popular political ghazal of all time, brought to you, in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, by an atheist Marxist, Faiz Ahmed Faiz (lyrics below). It is called, appropriately, "We Shall See."


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