Fuming is not analysis.
This isn’t strictly about the #PanamaPapers, though they provide a peg. This isn’t strictly about democracy either, a concept more talked about than defined with any precision. Neither is this about the Sharifs, though they make more than a cameo appearance here. This is about analysis.
I could make it short and say fuming is not analysis nor, as the discerning know, making judgments on the basis of one’s predilections and biases. But the issue is more serious and needs some explanation.
Life would be much easier if it lent itself to linear causalities, like dropping a glass. You drop it on a hard surface, gravity takes over, the fragile glass can’t handle the impact, and it breaks. Put a cushion on the surface and drop it accurately, the impact of the fall is absorbed and the glass doesn’t break. That’s a neat, straightforward affair. But that’s not life.
There are variables; too many, actually. There are also imponderables, which means we can’t be sure of the consequences of our actions. We are often called upon to make choices that are not about choosing between clear good and clear bad but between bad and worse. To modify the adage, the best is the enemy of good, in matters complex, good might just be the enemy of bad and force your hand into doing worse.
Mao Tse-tung once wrote an essay titled On Contradiction. He argued two main points: in resolving and analyzing a situation, look for the principal contradiction; two, the principal contradiction is a fluid, not a static concept. Put another way, the principal contradiction might lie between entity X and Y on Day A. On Day B it could lie between entity P and Q in a way which might bring into P entities X and Y against Q.
The danger usually is for people to identify secondary contradictions as the principal contradiction at various points in time. That would make them hop and hopping is not analysis. It betokens confusion and the inability to extricate oneself from the immediate and use a longitudinal design in appreciating a situation instead of a snapshot view.
Take Pakistan’s democracy and political parties. There’s a lot of form but little of substance here. Comparative politics over the past quarter century has amassed sizeable literature in trying to figure out the concept. Thanks to this corpus we now know today that democracy is many things, both in form and substance. It is also more than just electing representatives, though electing them remains a necessary condition. We also know that it is a mistake to think that democracy in and of itself means liberal democracy. There’s clarity that democracy’s majoritarianism can be lethal for pluralism. And it goes on.
Political parties are waning everywhere. There’s increasing interest in studying the phenomenon. In Pakistan, they have never meant much outside of personality and family cults. Take the Bhuttos out and there’s no PPP. Subtract Imran Khan from PTI and you are left holding nothing. Get rid of Altaf Hussain and you have multiple factions but no MQM. The PMLN is nothing much beyond Nawaz Sharif, though as friend Feisal Naqvi pointed to me the other day, the family does have some depth. That said, it still isn’t a modern political party.
Governance, budgeting, and policy priorities are areas where none of these parties invokes much confidence. Add to this a society that is largely out of joint with modernity and advancing knowledge economy and we have an A-grade bedlam.
We also don’t like politicians. We believe the worst about them. We like to lynch them, figuratively speaking. Into this come the #PanamaPapers. Tongues wag, people go up on their hind legs. They bay for the blood of the Sharifs. The Sharifs, instead of responding with clarity and precision about their wealth, use the government machinery to attack others. That’s the classic attempt to dig deeper in trying to get out of a hole. That adds to peoples’ snapshot view of the situation, which becomes a substitute for a longitudinal design. Secondary contradictions are mistaken for the principal one.
The Iceland P.M. has stepped down. David Cameron is beleaguered. What’s wrong with Sharif? Let me put it another way: the last I checked, neither Iceland nor the U.K.—at least since the days of Cromwell and his son—had a military problem—i.e., when politicians are taken on in those countries or when they fall or are besieged, that does not redound to the advantage of the elephant in the room because they don’t have an elephant in the room. Pakistan does.
Foremost then is to figure out where the principal contradiction lies. Between the society and the ‘democratic’ system or between the civilians (politicians and society) and the military. If it’s the former, huff and puff and blow the house down. If it’s the latter, then perhaps there is need to understand that blowing the house down may be the worse option and worse, as we have noted, might just be the enemy of bad.
Of course, my assumption here is that for all its flaws and tribulations the current system is preferable to a managerially better system in the very short-term. But this assumption is grounded in empirical evidence of previous experiments with having uniformed managers in the driver’s seat. Those experiments didn’t work and there’s no reason to assume that they will in the future.
On the side of the politicians, however, there’s much that can be done and is being done. We have declared open season on them. We chide them; insult them; pull them down. Generals aren’t much given to appreciating that. They don’t come in through elections and they don’t like to be thrown out through the ballot. Either they go feet first or it takes a lot of time to hound them out—at a substantial cost. The process suffers through those interruptions.
My other assumption is that most of us think we have had enough of that snakes and ladders game. If that is correct then our criticism of the politicians must be tempered with prudence begotten of a clearer understanding of the principal contradiction.
It’s not easy. The political scene is divisive and disruptive. It thrives on noise. The military is cohesive and efficient. There is also the issue of accountability. How do we make politicians accountable? Those are important questions. But they must be juxtaposed with a similar question apropos of the generals. Have we been able to hold them accountable? No, we haven’t. The politicians we can at least throw out.
So, yes. It’s good to bark up a tree but we must ensure that we are barking up the right one. Sometimes I feel like we tend to end up in the wrong jungle altogether.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. 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
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.