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(First published on November 23rd, 2019).

The system’s endurance test is almost complete. Almost. Maulana Fazlur Rehman came and went. The matter of extensions and retentions is behind us. All those predictions of an overnight change did not amount to anything. We have the same men as the prime minister, president, chief justice and chief of army staff. To be frank the country passed similar tests in 2013, 2014 and 2017-18 as well. Except for one law minister who had to tender his resignation in view of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan’s (TLP) sit-in, I don’t recall anybody stepping aside during those sit-ins either. But the desire to bring down the system for an overnight change is a gift that keeps giving.

In our world of tribal hostilities, you must have heard this being said a million times — that the system must die. Mostly from the beneficiaries of the system. Not the average Joes like yours truly. Why is it that when the State’s favourites fight, they do not care what falls apart? Not the average Joes who are supposed to prove their worth and loyalty to the State and the system every single day just to be a token, detached observer in the power equation? Is it a sense of entitlement? That some of us are more equal than others? That they know they are loved and pampered enough that the desire to bring down the entire carousel rather than exit it momentarily and wait for their turn would not harm them a bit.

To comprehend this you have to look around and see who the main characters that often fight are. Maulana, the Zardaris and Bhuttos, the Sharifs, the incumbents and various regional parties. Whose favourites are these? Well, the narrative about the incumbents is a bit tricky and I will attend to that in a moment. But what about the rest? Are they your and my favourites? If yes, why is it that their median age is well over 60 whereas Pakistan’s median age is somewhere in the early 20s. Who is not letting them go? The common man? Then why is it the moment a new party is formed the automatic negative thoughts start crawling from screen to screen that this too will amount to nothing? So, are they favourites of the system? Sure. But what is the system?

Is it the collective name given to the heads of the permanent institutions of the State? But aren’t they there for a short while? Pakistan’s peculiar history accords them a lot of power. But how can you call a person part of the system whose stay in the office does not exceed three years, six tops when the system is being exceptionally generous? You could have argued that not the heads, but the top brass of institutions represent the system. But as with any institution that abides by the fixed terms of service, merit and change, the top brass totally changes every five years. Military, judiciary, bureaucracy, all change their entire elite within a short time span. Then why is it that the country’s elite remains the same. It is a long list of succession, from the Sharifs and Bhuttos, to the Jamalis and Chaudhrys in the provinces.

Here’s the thing. To an average Joe the system represents working traffic lights, open roads, crime kept away from the streets and pays and pensions offered in time. This is the ground floor. As you move upward it transforms into a carousel. The same faces take their turn. Not even their younger generations. The younger lot is allowed only when the operator or the carousel guard momentarily shuts it down, takes over and refuses to budge until some meaningful change takes place. We only saw younger faces replacing their dads and mums when General Musharraf introduced graduation as a condition for the Parliament. But this change is momentary. The guard is soon manoeuvred out of the system and the carousel resumes, with the same aging faces. In their 60s now. Ask yourselves why the two major opposition parties could not effect a generational transfer of power and you get the answer.

This is where you have to factor in the joker. Not joker the clown. But joker the wild card. Media pundits. With hardly any real skin in the game, these floating bodies feed on the crumbs of information left behind. They weaponise these crumbs and pretend that they are in the know. But are they? When the system cleans after itself and does not leave any crumbs lying around, they get wary and tell you with googly eyes that something has gone awry. That the system is about to fall apart. Some of them even fashion themselves as the iconoclasts and profess the destruction of the system. But their own interests are so insignificant that they mostly revolve around transfers and postings in the local thanas and kutcheries and acquiring some property and jobs for their loved ones. They are what they are. The jokers.

And what about the incumbents? Are they favourites too? The prevalent narrative maintains they are. But who sets the narrative? The system. If the incumbent premier is a ladla or a favourite then why did it take him 22 years to get to power? No, he is not. There is another way to look at it. On the eve of the 2018 elections, there were two insurgents in town. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the TLP. The system felt that the two would not let it move forward. Embracing the latter would have been an unmitigated disaster for the country not just the system. The former was far more civilised, urbane, and cosmopolitan. And since 2011 it had allowed the leading lights of the system to populate its rank and file. So, the usual rules of business, the systemic aversion of the new and the unknown were suspended and the former was allowed into power echelons. No rigging. No manipulation. Just the suspension of disbelief. But it has been an unfairly bumpy ride since then, full of microaggressions with no laws passed and rebelling businesses and bureaucracies. While everyone keeps predicting the end of the current dispensation, they ought to see the merits of stability. General Musharraf might be remembered for many things but in this country’s history he was the first president to allow the assemblies to complete their full term. This trend held even after his departure and is good for the country.

If by this time you feel disheartened by the prospects of change then you are using the wrong lens. You fail to make a mark because you want an overnight change. Transformation is a generational phenomenon. It takes many generations to reach a meaningful place in history. Just look at the progress of Western democracies. The common man knows that. And that is why he doesn’t mind working with the system for gradual change. The system has allowed a new face, the incumbent, to use its carousel. For now, that is progress enough.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2019.

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