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An unnatural governing order

Can Pakistan’s political system sustain the current dysfunction it faces? Not for an indeterminate period. No system can withstand an unmitigated run of what is best described as ‘unnaturalness’. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf argues that violations of acceptable behaviour of the individual (as defined in mainstream, orthodox Islam) are in essence things that run against the grain of the natural order or the human “fitra” or as we say in Urdu, ‘fitrat’.

Pakistan’s political system – a remarkable amalgam of colonial rule, dictatorship, family dynasties and paradoxically, the will of hundreds of millions of Pakistanis over four generations – can withstand a lot, but there are limits. Limits that are being tested by a government obsessed with vindictive pettiness, an opposition that cannot grow beyond the plutocratic sense of entitlement of its leaders and institutions stretched thinner and thinner across areas of public life they have no business being in.

To understand how much more the system can take, let’s first revisit Isaac Newton. Newton’s first law is that static objects (or those moving in a straight line) will only be disrupted by external interventions. Think about what this means for politics and governance. Think about how much inertia Pakistani governance is burdened by, and what kind of external intervention it will take for it to be disrupted. Or how linear traditional politics is and what non-traditional narratives are exciting voters – yes, this means the religious extremism that has been on display on a street near you over the last two months.

Newton’s second law is that the force of an object is a product of both its mass, and its acceleration. A very light body moving very fast doesn’t matter much, and a very heavy body crawling as the speed of a snail may take solace from the parable of the hare and the tortoise, but it isn’t very forceful. This has implications for reformers. Your obviously brilliant observations about how things work, and why they don’t get better, don’t matter if you are a flyweight, and don’t matter if the brilliance is inaccessible.

Newton’s third law is that all actions have reactions that are equal and opposite to the original stimulus. Mafiosos like to live large, and thus exceed the laws of physics. And sometimes, the good guys appropriate that tendency for excess, in service of the greater good. In the 1987 classic, ‘The Untouchables’, Sean Connery captures this sentiment as he channels the bad in Jimmy Malone’s good cop, “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue”. But the lessons from physics, from fiction and from nonfiction are all the same: actions have consequences (and reactions).

Back when Newton was framing these now seemingly obvious, cross-sectional truisms, the worlds of banking, finance and politics were not as complex or accessible as they are today. But physics may be, of all the sciences, the most natural of all. Lessons abound for those that seek them. Consider, for example, the long list of major retail brands that have declared bankruptcy in 2020. It is an astounding, almost breathtaking who’s who of iconic brands. American retailer chain JC Penny, with over $8 billion in assets and one hundred years of being part of the imagination of Americans under its belt, declared bankruptcy on May 15. On May 22, the car rental behemoth Hertz, with nearly $26 billion in assets, followed suit. Speaking of suits, Brooks Brothers ($500 million in assets) went down July 8. That same month saw bankruptcies for Muji USA, New York & Co, followed by the owners of Jos A Bank and the Men’s Wearhouse in August, and prime New York City retail tourist darling, Century 21 in September.

The easy explanation for why so many large corporations and brands are falling like flies is the Covid-19 pandemic. Traditional retail has been hit very badly all around the world. But the manner in which some very large and well-established companies have collapsed this year has less to do with Covid-19 and more to do with foundational weaknesses in their business model. A lot of traditional businesses have been playing fast and loose with the laws of physics. If you are a storefront retailer that sells things that are being bought by more and more people on websites, you are dinosauring yourself. That you could not see this is not Covid-19’s fault.

Traditional retail has been in decline for nearly two decades now. Deloitte’s ‘The Global Power of Retailing 2018’ report showed that the compounded annual growth rates for the largest retailers, as well as the fastest growing retailers have been slowing. Growth for the top 250 retailers slowed from 9.1 percent in 2006 to 5.4 percent in 2011 to 4.8 percent in 2016. More tellingly, growth for the fastest growing 50 retailers fell from 28.7 percent in 2006, to 22.1 percent in 2011, to 20.9 percent in 2016. The demographics of who is shopping, how these people shop, and what they buy are changing drastically. If you are a retailer that is not keeping track of the shopper, Covid-19 or no Covid-19, your business is not going to survive.

In Pakistani politics, the ‘shopper’ or voter is as likely to be female as male. The shopper is nearly twice as likely to be under the age of 35 as she is over. The shopper is predominantly Muslim, and like all identities, this identity is increasingly assertive. A showmanship that has been cultivated by the almighty-adjacent algorithm. Extremism, even if just for show, is now normal. Something that was simply not the case in 2007 when the TTP, Facebook, Twitter, and Barelvi aggression were all either yet to be conceived, or in their early infancies.

Meanwhile, national consensus cannot be achieved in Pakistan unless it is either forced by the state, or by geopolitics, or it involves the majority ganging up on a minority. From rape apologists to outright crooks, from charlatans to clowns, a wide spectrum enjoy freedom, and in many cases impunity. Others are jailed without due process. The jailers profess honourable intent in dishonourable conduct. In this cacophony of hypocrisy and myopia, some are feted and treated as superstars, asked softball questions, and invited onto the national airwaves, over and over and over again. Corrupting both our sense of what is normal, and our expectations of tomorrow.

This is all unnatural. It is against the ‘fitra’ as designed and decreed by Providence. You cannot continually break the laws of physics, or rather you can, but you must then be prepared for corrections. Not all corrections can be ‘managed’. The growth of extremist narratives in particular, should be of grave concern for anyone that professes to be invested in the long-term interests of the country and its people. The question most in Islamabad and Rawalpindi don’t want to ask, and don’t want answered is this: what happens if inequality and injustice are ‘corrected’ by the socio-economic groups that suffer inequality and injustice the most?

Much credit belongs to the government for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially through the NCOC approach. But is a war with the opposition the best way to put the extra financial and political space from this success to use? The NCOC model demands deepening avenues for cooperation and consensus between the federal government and the provinces, and across the provinces. Instead, the government and its backers continue to believe that the government has the moral, political, legal and brute strength to simply bend all before it to its will. It does not. No entity does.

This core reality is embedded in the country’s bicameral parliamentary design, as well as its federal character. To govern the country requires the capacity to generate cross-political, cross-ethnic, cross-provincial and increasingly cross-class appeal. It is, as natural goes, the most natural thing about Pakistan. Those that violate or ignore this natural order have suffered the lessons Newton taught us. Over and over and over again.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "An unnatural governing order," The News. 2020-10-06.
Keywords: Political science , Political space , Financial space , Traditional business , Annual growth , Covid-19 pandemic , Traditional politics , Political system , Dictatorship , Corruption , TTP