Warning signs

Cyril Almeida

Rule of thumb: the wilder, woollier and wackier it gets, the less it all means.
And this week was a whole lot of wild, woolly and wacky.
The JIT fought back, the PML-N piled on - it was vicious and entertaining, ugly and amusing.
But it probably didn't move the needle much.
Political controversy has a contradiction at its heart. You need progressively larger doses of it to keep the public interested, but bigger and bigger doses of controversy inoculate the public.
The allegations this week were stunning because, stripped bare, they were an ISI versus IB face-off.
That's the kind of stuff that can end governments and maybe democracy itself. Or at least it could in the past.
This week, all it seemed like was a bit of high jinks and schoolyard squabbling.
The IB is disrupting a super-duper important investigation, an investigation the ISI has lent a representative to. The chutzpah!
Messy continuity - it shouldn't just be within reach, it should have been the only option by now. But it's not.
And the investigatory lot, with no less than two representatives of the boys, is accused of spying on the prime minister. Dirty tricks!
It didn't - couldn't - stick. The problem: it was just more controversy in an already great big stew of controversy.
The JIT process had already been tainted and the N-League had already whinged a whole lot. Folks had caught on.
And when it all got swallowed up by the spectacle of Nawaz presenting himself for questioning, more of the fright was sucked out.
Politically, even the most rabid of Nawaz's enemies will know the optics: serving PM appearing before a bunch of no-name junior nobodies - who's going to dare pull the trigger on ouster now?
Legally, the reason we got here in the first place was because the majority three on the bench of five were queasy about using a bunch of petitions and suo motu powers to oust an elected PM.
If they were queasy then, all the shenanigans around the JIT can have only made them queasier.
And queasier can only mean an airtight, slam-dunk, absolutely-no-holes case against the PM will be demanded.
The kind of airtight, slam-dunk, absolutely-no-holes case a controversial JIT venturing down controversial paths may not be able to assemble.
So the needle probably didn't move much this week.
But there is a reason to be afraid.
We are in uncharted territory. A third consecutive, on-time, on-schedule, full-term election has never happened before.
But we're also in familiar terrain: a version of the '90s is playing out, in slow motion and with the PPP swapped out for the PTI.
By themselves, the combination of uncharted territory and familiar terrain should yield the usual Pakistani outcome: a messy kind of survival.
Possibly because Nawaz seems to have learned something from the '90s. Back then, the N-League needed the PPP to destroy itself and vice versa.
This time, the PTI seems willing, but the N-League not - at least not enthusiastically.
And possibly because of a post-Musharraf decision by the boys: don't let this democracy thing get out of hand, but don't snuff it out either.
Messy continuity - it shouldn't just be within reach, it should have been the only option by now.
But it's not. And slipping and sliding as we are towards a third consecutive full-term election, a twin danger has emerged.
The democratic transition has stalled. That's the N-League's fault. Simultaneously, a violent and vicious kind of politics is asserting itself. That's the PTI's fault, at least in part.
Looking back, the transition to democracy has stalled since the 18th Amendment.
We may have escaped our periodic IMF embrace since and Nawaz may have built a lot of roads and erected a bunch of megawatts, but the record is fairly clear:
Zero reforms; a resurgence of anti-democratic and democracy-sceptical opinion; and a political class which sees democracy as primarily an electoral exercise.
Sure, Nawaz is desperate to push a game-changing foreign policy, but being slapped back there repeatedly isn't an excuse for domestic, democratic failure.
Ten years into the transition, we're stuck in neutral - or possibly sliding back.
By itself, because of the institutional decision of the boys to reject takeover, that wouldn't necessarily imply disaster.
But this week has given us another peek into what could lie ahead: an election season of vicious partisanship and extreme media and political rhetoric that could cause everything to come unstuck.
It would take some hubris to suggest the Ayub election in the mid-'60s, the Bhutto election in the late '70s or the Zia election in the mid-'80s can be overtaken in bitterness and viciousness by 2018.
But between a metastasising rabidness in TV land, an unhinged social media and a no-holds-barred politics practised by the PTI, 2018 could turn terribly ugly.
Again, by itself election-year tumult, violence or chaos could be manageable.
But when married to a stalling of the democratic project, it could have frightening effects.
Best case scenario: the current equation holds. PML-N snarls back at the PTI, but keeps an eye on the ultimate goal, re-election.
PTI pushes the envelope and flirts with disaster, but Imran's ambition to become PM is tempered by an understanding that for him to become PM, he needs democracy to stay.
And the boys remain confident that they know how to keep the civilians pinned back, so there's no need for a coup.
Messy continuity.
The worst case scenario is that we go back to the '90s, but with new tools and a more aggressive, systemic disillusionment. -Courtesy: Dawn

The writer can be reached at: cyril.a@gmail.com
Twitter: @cyalm