Philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Kamran Shafi made this point most excellently earlier this week, and we are reminded again of just how close we are coming to repeating the mistakes of the past by Kamila Hyat in today’s edition of The News.
There is a reason for the dismal state of affairs we confront today as a nation. The militancy, the growth in unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, the clash among institutions and the power crisis are all the consequence of decades of shoddy – and indifferent – management of national affairs.
In more ways than one, these problems are inter-linked. They are for instance tied in to the consistent failure to allow a democratic system to continue unimpeded by pressures exerted from the outside. The dramatic about-turn by Mian Nawaz Sharif on the proposed 18th constitutional amendment is of course the latest example of this. Suddenly, the statesmanship Mian Sahib claimed to have discovered amidst the sands of Jeddah has vanished. Instead we have a reversion to the ugly 1990s, when the major political parties did all they possibly could to trip each other up – not realising that by doing so, they were also setting themselves up for a fall. There had been some hope that this suicidal tendency had been left behind. Sadly, it appears to have re-emerged.
It is hard – indeed impossible – to believe that Mian Nawaz Sharif acted entirely on his own. There is much conjecture as to who may have spoken to him down the phone line, shortly before his press conference – which left many members of his own party stunned. High-profile events since then provide a hint. It is in many ways typical of the PML-N chief to deny he had erred; through his two tenures in power – which we should remember were dominated by bizarre attempts to subvert the judiciary, pass a ‘Shariah’ bill which would have elevated Sharif to Amir-ul-Momineen granting him extraordinary powers and by attempts to snuff out media dissent – Sharif was a man known for his stubbornness. Today, members of his party fumble defensively to try and cover up, with much uncertainty visible as to what they should say.
The fact is that, within an hour, Nawaz Sharif, whose popularity had risen to coincide with the slide of the PPP’s, has plummeted steeply downwards in terms of public standing. People excited by the prospect of major constitutional amendments that would have gone a long way towards setting straight a document that had lost all balance as a result of the ceaseless tampering with its contents are angry with the PML-N. President Zardari, who for now retains his powers, is no doubt pleased.
The PPP has emerged as the hero in this latest chapter, even if the prime minister’s denials that there is any misunderstanding at all are a little unconvincing.
The PML-N’s stance over the renaming of NWFP – one of the issues which it now says held up the signing of the agreement on the passage of the 18th Amendment – also exposes once more its damagingly Punjab-centric approach. The appeal by Shahbaz Sharif to the Taliban to avoid targeting that province – while presumably going ahead with activities that involve blowing Pathans, Balochis or Sindhis to miniscule smithereens – was of course another example of this. If allowed to vote, there seems little real doubt the majority of residents of NWFP would opt for the ‘Pakhtunkhwa’ name for their province championed by the ANP. It is hard to see what all the fuss is about. After all, a specific ethnic group is identified in the names of each of the other provinces. Since Mian Sahib is evidently so concerned about the failure to represent other groups living in the stretch of territory that makes up NWFP, perhaps he should focus his energies on setting an example by renaming Punjab as ‘Punjab-Seraikistan’ or ‘Punjab-Gandhara’ or whatever other complex, two-barrelled name strikes his fancy.
There are matters, however, of even greater consequence than the naming of a region that stare us in the face. The clash among institutions is acquiring increasingly dangerous proportions. The about-turn by the PML-N is evidently linked to this. What we have then is a recipe for disaster. The anarchy that swirls around us could increase, worsening the situation – and possibly even paving the way for intervention from beyond parliament. Attempts appear once more to be on to subvert democracy, and we see developments that are in many ways ominously familiar. Predictions that they would unfold this way had been made in some places many months ago.
The problem is that the cauldron bubbling on the burner contains so many unsavoury ingredients -like the unwholesome stew that acted as a key factor in the 1905 mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin – that it is becoming harder and harder to pick them out. Chaos continues in the northwest, where militants remain in control of some areas and wreak havoc on others; people who have returned home face a wasteland of destroyed crops and damaged homes. They have received astonishingly little help. Elsewhere in the country, there is no access to justice for most people. There is also a declining sense of security as crime expands and there is no evidence that state law-enforcers are in any position to check it.
Desperate citizens have taken more and more matters into their own hands, purchasing devices to keep fans running or hiring security guards to keep watch over streets. Instances continue to be reported of these untrained guards shooting dead those who had merely stepped out of homes to run an errand. We live in times where danger lurks everywhere.
It seems quite apparent that the problems we now face are of too great a magnitude for any one party to handle. The measures taken to improve matters – such as attempts to introduce reform in Balochistan – seem like little more than a single drop of rain in a desert. Even as it falls, a new sandstorm blows up to hide all trace of the relief. We need a willingness on the part of the political forces to work together.
Other agendas, imposed from outside parliament, must not play a part in the shaping of events. The new division between major parties brings greater threat with it and reminds us that nothing has been learnt from the past. This augurs ill for us all.