IT must be the worst of times, with a natural calamity striking millions, forcing them out of their modest mud homes, ruining their crops, exacting a toll on their loved ones and not even sparing the lifeline of many in the countryside, their livestock.

If those who wield power in the country, and those that share in it in whatever measure, were united in putting aside their petty differences and power grabs in order to deal with the calamity, one could say a way forward was possible.

Sadly, that does not seem to be the case. A populist opposition leader, who enjoys considerable support in the country if the recent by-elections were any indicator, appears committed to his seemingly ‘scorched earth’ campaign ever since his ouster from office earlier in the year.

For now, he is setting one deadline after another and attacking every single institution in the country that he sees as an obstacle on his path back to power. Some insiders say there is method to his madness. Despite the floods, his popularity has not ebbed and he intends to ride the crest of the wave.

The country’s economy is broken. Its social contract appears in tatters. Let us now experiment no more. In the words of a teenager: take a chill pill.

His public rallies are cleverly designed as their location is largely well away from the flood-hit areas in south Punjab and KP, and nowhere near worst-hit Sindh and Balochistan. He knows well that a big win in Punjab and KP in any future election could put him back in office.

So, he can afford to ignore the helpless plight of the waterlogged people of the two other provinces which received four to five times their usual quota of rain and have been flooded, with the water not receding through absorption or by draining itself out.

Outright political opportunism is driving this strategy. And why not? This is what politics is about. The politician’s pursuit of office is done thus. If a natural calamity strikes, the quest for office can’t be put on hold.

The result of the economic policies of the past two governments and the current global environment with spiralling energy and food prices provides an ideal platform for anyone who happens to be in the opposition at this point in time to hammer the one(s) in office. Inflation is making life impossible for the multitudes.

With inflation being a legitimate target, add a twist of foreign conspiracy and a dash of religion and voila! You have the magic formula. And if you also have the audacity now to start attacking and sowing divisions among powerful quarters that have helped propel you to newer heights till recently, you can’t get it wrong, can you?

Not if some speculation is to be believed. The elephant in the room is now being mentioned almost daily and feels it is being made ‘controversial’. This is a new and uneasy reality for those who have preferred to wield power way beyond their constitutional limits, while staying well away from the spotlight.

Now they are being dragged into the limelight and they don’t like it. Therefore, the speculation suggests, a new political engineering plan is on the drawing board so a fresh and clean start can be made. This would have been very nice if the engineers’ track record was awe-inspiring. It is not.

With the economic challenges unlikely to go away anytime soon and the floods placing an untold additional burden on every Pakistani, to play more games sounds utterly insane, to me at least. Even if evidence slowly starts to emerge to back the speculation, there seem way too many variables to manage simultaneously to deliver what will leave everybody happy, or at least be acceptable to all.

For now, the ideal would be to manage the economy and rescue it from the troubled waters it is caught in; to give direct, targeted relief to the poor hard-hit by inflation and to make sure those rendered destitute by the ferocity of the floods do not feel let down, abandoned.

The poor have always had to bear the brunt of every nasty situation, man-made or natural. Let’s, for a change, rush to provide succour to them, make them feel like Pakistanis that are equal to the rest of us. Most importantly, give them hope and show them a path back to normality in their lives. Not asking for much.

Also, for a change, there is a crying need to shelve our ‘wisdom’ that dictates and shapes all our insanity. We must rely solely on the Constitution and the rule of law. The country’s economy is broken. Its social contract appears in tatters. Let us now experiment no more. In the words of a teenager: take a chill pill.

If indeed a national consensus is warranted on the way forward, it should be dictated by national interest and not one political entity’s ferocious attacks on one and all. It’ll be ludicrous to bend to threats of arson, of burning the house down.

If you cede ground today, rest assured tomorrow’s concession will need to be even bigger, far more bitter, leading to the obvious question, where will all this end? The rule of law must be held supreme. And unless a genuine consensus is achieved via a national dialogue, backroom deals will deliver nothing viable, let alone enviable.

Against this rather bleak scenario, my spirits — given the eternal optimist that I am — were lifted with the visit to the protest in Quetta for missing persons by several members of the federal cabinet. That was followed by the prime minister’s assurance to the Islamabad High Court that he will address the issue of enforced disappearances within an agreed timeframe of two months.

The Quetta protesters who have braved the vagaries of the weather, including vicious rainstorms, for 50 days, agreed to go home over the ministers’ assurances. The cabinet members’ words and the High Court proceedings filled me with a little hope, no matter how vain it turns out to be. Even then, for me, until there are identifiable signs of a resolution, it will remain the worst of times.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
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Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2022

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