What profits a man?

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and
forfeits his soul?” — Mark 8:36

Two weeks ago I wrote about the American political sitcom Veep and what a perfect metaphor it is for our times. Before that, I have repeatedly told you that I do not see the appeal of the public office. Political power is overrated and what use is it to force people to do your bidding? To top it all, political power intrinsically does not have any value of its own. Not until you bend some rules. From a traffic warden to the world’s most powerful office a job is just another job. Power is only enticing when you are ready to exploit it. Otherwise, you could easily be as powerful by being a librarian in a backwater country.

And yet so many would do a lot, sacrifice a lot including their souls to climb up and sit atop the greasy pole. What gives?

When in the final episode of the Veep, Selena Myer throws her daughter’s marriage under the bus, selects the worst excuse of an accidental politician as a running mate, and sends perhaps the only staff member who cares about her to prison, just to be president again, there comes a moment when she is in the Oval sitting alone. She looks at the empty room in melancholy and sighs before being distracted by work. We are then fast-forwarded to 24 years later when she is dead and her funeral is going on. As she is laid to rest, the breaking news of Tom Hanks’ death at 88 offsets the coverage, and fickle news channels cut away from her funeral. And one cannot help but think what a waste of so much talent. Why go there? What you gain through such compromises is always finite, meaningless in the long run, what you lose in the deals (your soul, your well-meaning friends, love and relations) is permanent? Power is only an opiate meant to dull the pain. But make no mistake. The pain is there. What gives?

Many of you must already have guessed where this is going. A fortnight ago, when in my piece titled “Explaining gravity to a chicken”, I quoted Amy from the show telling Selena Myer that because of her poor governance no woman would win again, I thought I was being more than obvious. In fact in the end I said as much. Too bad if no one was keen on taking a hint. It took decades to convince the system to go out of its comfort zone, its safe list of candidates and break the mould of the two-party system and make room for a third one. But what happened next was so traumatising for it that it may not trust another outlier for a long long time.

What are the key administrative strengths of the democratic order and why would a bureaucrat prefer a democratic system over a dictatorial one? It is inclusive, it is owned by the people, yes, yes, yes, but you are not getting the question. Administrative strengths. Administratively it guarantees a system of succession and peaceful transition of power. Come hell or high water the term based civilian to civilian transition is constitutionally ensured. No wars of succession, no protracted pitched battles, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary the public servants are expected to do. Just do your job and leave the rest to the constitution and the people. The second administrative strength of a democratic system is change because it does not believe in life tenure for an elected office. You can argue that it is a weakness, that a good leader should remain in office much longer. Okay, but who succeeds him once that good leader being a mortal dies? Any systemic guarantee that another good person succeeds him or her? None. You can have an angel running the show for twelve years succeeded by 80 years of a satan’s rule. Terms in office and term limits ensure that no such tragedy befalls the nation. In a nation with a mixed democratic autocratic experience whenever a dictator went out of power the country went through hell. So what happened on April 9 was the system’s nightmare come true.

Now let us talk about the unproven hunches. Some parts of the system believe that on the 9th there was a conspiracy but those accused were not responsible for it. That whoever designed it wanted one of two things. Either a division or even a clash among the country’s top military brass. Or the outright imposition of Martial Law that would have been rigged to meet the same fate as the 2016 failed Turkish coup attempt. These parts believe that the plan for a public pushback was in place. And the people who came out a day later would have been clogging the arteries of the country a day earlier had martial law been imposed. And then someone uncontentious would have been forced to fill in the void by bringing back the former premier. Those who were looking for division within the army’s ranks underestimated the military discipline. The system believes it dodged a bullet and vows to never let it repeat.

But what is the source of the conspiracy? Look at what went on in America, Europe, and many other US allies for an answer. The cold war never went away. Russia is not as strong as the Soviet Union but it has made good use of technology and hybrid warfare. The Mueller Report bears testimony to that. In his speech before the Ukraine invasion, Putin refused to honour the agreements made in 1991. If he hasn’t forgiven 1991 do you think he has forgotten the 1980s? All western allies are going through this schizophrenia, Russia and its long-term allies like India are not. Among the western allies, there is a reason why the ambitious ones from Trump to Netanyahu, from Erdogan to Marine Le Pen, and Nigel Farage all lined up to meet Putin. The former premier’s Moscow dash is read in the same context.

In the final season of Veep, there is an interesting development when Myer seeks China’s help. First in South Carolina the black voters are turned back from the polling booths, and then on the Election Day too an implied intervention takes place. China’s reference is incidental. China is still a US ally or at the very least harbours no malice. Russia does. It is believed that the writer used China and Myer’s accidental campaign manager Kieth Quinn to hint at Russia’s interference in 2016 and Steve Bannon’s role in it. Exploiting Pakistan’s emotional cadres is a far easier job.

So a picture emerges of a man who had cut many deals. One, the above. Two, the Buzdar deal because of superstitions I mentioned last week. Three, with the hard-right pro-Taliban faction. And finally with the elements who care little about the institutions, and the constitution and do not mind jeopardising the national integrity for personal gains. Remember unlike Pakistan Turkey has no territorially ambitious neighbour sitting next to it to devour it. It could afford the 2016 failed coup. Pakistan cannot. I don’t get why someone I believe is fundamentally a good person would cut such deals. But of course. Ambition!

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2022.


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