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Shutdown, cleanup

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Shutdown, cleanup

October 20
06:51 2017

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

AND so Nawaz, Maryam and Safdar have been indicted. All while reconciliation between Maryam and Hamza is in the works. And all while Safdar’s hateful speech in the National Assembly continues to create ripples inside and outside the N-League inner circle. For good measure, Imran’s troubles in the Supreme Court are also in the headlines. Will we never move beyond the collective stupor that is generated by an obsession with larger-than-life political personalities? Troublingly, things don’t seem to change much. Back in the 1990s, an inordinate amount of time was spent scrutinising the Bhutto family. There was Benazir, Zardari, Murtaza, Nusrat, and all of their internal feuds, and speculation about who was corrupt and who was not.

Then Murtaza was murdered and the media went crazy speculating about Benazir’s role in it. And then, almost 10 years ago, Benazir was murdered. Criminal proceedings continue to this day, the case still ‘unresolved’. Just like Akbar Bugti’s. Just like many, many others. Even Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination remains a mystery. But still, the realities of the system of power in this country remain obfuscated by our obsession with Nawaz, Maryam, Shahbaz, Imran and Altaf.

I do not mean to suggest that these individuals do not matter, or that their antics are not constitutive of the system. To be sure, these mainstream politicians often seek power by any means and therefore reinforce the prevailing dynamics of Pakistan’s ruthless dog-eat-dog political universe.

The realities of the system of power in this country remain obfuscated by our obsession with Nawaz, Maryam, Shahbaz, Imran and Altaf

But there is much more going on beyond these personalities that we almost always neglect, and, in doing so, we unwittingly ensure that the system of power remains opaque, and, therefore, unchallenged.

So rather than continue to focus on the extended Sharif clan we should recognise that this is one of those rare moments in Pakistan’s history in which we can actually name the behind-the-scenes power brokers. It is unusual that the word ‘establishment’ becomes common currency as is the case these days, and, even more importantly, that the establishment is subject to public scrutiny.

Past history confirms that such moments are fleeting and that the small window of opportunity to generate debates about systemic matters — possibly even leading to action — must be taken. Of course, certain eye-catching debates have already been generated, even if action is yet to follow. Take the forthright stand taken by Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal about paramilitaries constitutionally under his command or the inappropriateness of the army’s spokesperson commenting on the economy.

But there is much more going on that warrants our attention. The stunted debate about Fata is one such matter of crucial importance. It is impossible to overstate just how far-reaching the impacts of a change in Fata’s status could be. This is, after all, the territory that has been used by the establishment for its utterly destructive policy of ‘strategic depth’ with consequences both for our society and relations with our neighbours.

Surely shaking up the status quo in Fata is a matter of importance for all progressive forces. Let’s not do the usual and make it just about individuals like Fazlur Rahman. If the structure of power in Fata revolves around the establishment, then any change in Fata’s status and the rights of the people of the region necessarily must go through the establishment as well. The questions should be asked, and answers should be provided, lest Fata once again fades into the proverbial background.

Second, what to make of the fact that two major public institutions in the federal capital have been virtually shut down for the past two weeks? It is telling that the country’s biggest public hospital and the country’s highest-ranking public university are in a state of utter internal disrepair, even while the services that the institutions are supposed to provide — quality health and education — continue to be privatised and their standard deteriorates steadily. What are our long-term priorities vis-à-vis health and education? Is it even important to consider the future of the tens of millions in this country without the financial means to buy health and education in the ‘free market’?

The state of PIMS and Quaid-i-Azam University mirrors Pakistan’s overall system of power.

In many ways, the state of PIMS and Quaid-i-Azam University mirrors Pakistan’s overall system of power. Rather than plan around qualitative issues such as the future of public services, these institutions are beset by internal struggles for control to the point that their routine functioning itself becomes impossible.

Of course, the entrenched ‘establishments’ within these institutions (read: bureaucrats and mediocre career professionals) will never acknowledge that they are unaccountable, or that other stakeholders have no voice. Individual office-holders are blamed, students are blamed, nurses and staff are blamed. A process of democratising the institution and planning for the long term is eschewed, and then when dysfunction persists for long enough, a ‘clean-up operation’ is decreed, and order eventually restored. Sound familiar?

The article published originally in Dawn on October 20. The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. 

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