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Our Political Jabberwocky

by Ejaz Haider
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File Photo. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Rules are important because they secure one from the mischief of the adversary as much as they secure the adversary from one’s mischief

Politics is about conflict. It is also about a basic agreement on the rules of the game.

The conflict side of the equation is an acknowledgement that human affairs, outside of the simplistic goodness taught in the primers and contained in platitudes, are complex, interest-driven and selfish.

The agreement side is an understanding that unless we develop the mechanisms to resolve conflicts and aggregate conflicting interests in non-violent ways, we will have anarchy. There must be some rules and everyone must play according to those rules or no one will be able to play.

Rules are important because they secure one from the mischief of the adversary as much as they secure the adversary from one’s mischief. In that sense, they are both liberating and constraining. They work both in favor of and against all sides.

This is precisely why they must be internalized. We call that normative acceptance. You accept them as much as when they work against you as you do when they work in your favor. If the umpire gets a decision wrong, you accept it if you have exhausted your two reviews. The other side is equally constrained.

But here’s the thing, if it isn’t already amply clear: the acceptance comes when the application of rules is equal and unbiased. Take a match where team X is given two reviews and team Y four. How will the conflict be resolved? How will the match proceed?

Not very smoothly, I should think.

Which brings me to Pakistan’s topsy-turvy political season in the run-up to the polls.

Here’s the cast of characters: a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), facing fissures. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which seems confident—despite opinion polls—that it’s the next winner. The Army, which going by the digital platforms and the hordes of former officers sending anti-Nawaz messages, appears to be playing a game of correction. The judiciary which, going by Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s dissenting judgment in the Sheikh Rashid case, seems to be applying constitutional provisions discriminately.

Then there is the Election Commission of Pakistan and the interim government. Neither is evoking much confidence. The idea of caretaker governments was put into the Constitution because political actors do not trust each other. In a twist of irony, both deep and sweet, they agreed on some benchmarks to constitute caretaker (read: impartial) governments even as they continue to fall short of playing the game according to accepted rules which, if they could, would have saved the country this costly and ludicrous exercise of putting in caretakers.

But aside from this exercise in politico-administrative mockery, no one really believes that the caretakers are, or will be, impartial, their vehement statements of impartiality, notwithstanding. Ditto for the ECP which has been applying electoral laws arbitrarily and whose officers, caught on camera, could be seen asking loaded questions while scrutinizing the candidates.

The entire exercise has also become dubious because one of the hottest topics in Pakistan is how the military-judicial combine is scripting the PMLN’s defeat and a PTI win, with some bones thrown to the Pakistan Peoples Party. The important point here is not whether this perception is right or wrong or exaggerated but that it is now firmly grounded in most discussions.

In the midst of all this is the talk about postponing the polls. Of course, there’s no legal way in which that can be done, unless the judiciary pulls a rabbit out of the constitutional hat. Meanwhile, the chief justice has already dismissed such speculation on the record.

But the perception is getting entrenched as the speculation gains strength. Is there fire behind all the smoke?

This is where one gets into choppy waters. Analysis requires stability. Stability is a function of rules of the game and expected behavior. Expected behavior is knowing that actors will only play the game in the way it’s meant to play.

How does one analyze when actors involved in a game either play it without any rules or choose to flout the rules when they so desire? Also, how does one analyze when the game includes external actors that can, and do, determine how the players endogenous to the game must play it? Can one get two reviews and another four?

The match can’t happen or won’t be played. Or if the rules were suddenly changed, the match won’t be cricket any more.

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening here. And there’s a lot of evidence. The PMLN is being salami-sliced and is fighting back desperately. The PTI is happy because it knows that every setback to the PMLN adds to its advantage. It’s a zero-sum game for the two sides. Neither the PTI nor the PPP seems much concerned with the presence on the field of players that have no business being there.

In a terribly partisan environment, the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend.

That makes tactical sense. But it comes at a strategic cost to the very idea of politics and the two sides of the equation that hold the idea together. The tension that inheres in conflict and compromise and is resolved only through la règle du jeu resurfaces in ways that keep the equation unbalanced.

The problem with violating rules is not so much about the act of violation itself. That is the easier part and can be very tempting for short gains. It’s about the consequences of the action, not just its short-term impact but the erosion of the norm in the long term which necessarily impacts expected behavior.

As Philip Windsor said, the United States could have used tactical nuclear weapons to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail for long years. But if it had, the Soviet Union would have said, interesting. We can now use tactical nukes against U.S. allies.

The balance, once gone awry, is terribly difficult to restore.

Somehow this reminds me of the famous Garden scene from Richard II.

Servant: Why should we in the compass of a pale

Keep law and form and due proportion,

Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,

When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,

Is full of weeds…

Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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