Published in Dawn

It was an odd few days, but it did return one clear verdict: when the dust settled, a majority of the Punjab Assembly could be seen raising their hands high in support of the chief minister. ‘I consider breach of trust a sin,’ this paper reports the winner saying. ‘The moment I realise that I have lost confidence of the majority, by God, I’ll not stay a single day.’

Thus spoke Mian Nawaz Sharif, all of 36 years ago – on 23 October 1986. ‘Prominent among the absentees,’ reports Dawn, ‘were provincial minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi.’ The lion’s paw fell on Mr. Elahi just days later, when he was fired from the cabinet. His removal ‘made no difference,’ a miffed Mian sahib told newsmen.

So began the world’s longest game of snakes and ladders, if forever between Punjab’s two first families. In the years since, the ladders have gone from khaki to civvie back to khaki again but, as July’s by-elections show, it’s getting harder and harder for the snakes to jump parties.

Hence this past week, when we find the same faces, the same sad intrigues, and so little progress. This time it was Mr. Elahi’s allies raising their hands, in a reversal of 1986 (though, kudos for consistency: the shadowlands were shouldering Mian sahib back then, and they’re shouldering Mian sahib now). Fresh from winning back the House, Mr. Elahi signed off on losing it hours later, and called for dissolution.

Because, in this hall of mirrors, everything is upside-down: the PTI faithful are gushing over the Chaudhrys of Yesterday, long slammed as symbols of corruption and cronyism. Experts at political infighting, the Elahis have played their hand well: a good-cop bad-cop routine that kept both Mr. Khan and his invisible opponents guessing. Having revived their politics, terminal since the Musharraf era, the Chaudhrys will now continue leveraging the PTI’s popularity – until there’s no more left to bleed.

Whether the PTI understands this is another question: watching the miraculously blank expression of Usman Buzdar return to our screens, and hearing Mr. Khan propose resettling TTP hyenas in the former tribal areas, the party of change doesn’t seem to have changed much at all.

Meanwhile, Mian sahib’s men, who had once endeared themselves to the popular vote by thundering they would take ‘no dictation’ in 1993, are desperately looking for someone to dictate to them even three decades later. When it’s not from the sky lords up above, family members continue promoting each other on the ground: a PML-N readout tells us the party quaid’s daughter has been elevated to chief organizer by the uncle, in consultation with the father. And why not: the Muslim League should be as inheritable as any other London antique.

To most Pakistanis, these adventures will read as business as usual. And, in keeping with the tragic mass of our history, much of them are. But today’s circumstances, even for us, are dire: the economy is in freefall. Fear of default is morphing into reality: letters of credit are getting the chop, industry is shutting down, millions are facing layoffs, and the young and best and brightest of this country – even its biggest optimists – are trying their best to get out.

Oblivious to this – to the howling need for stability – is our politics: the assemblies are up in the air, even as the centre refuses to budge.

Then again, how we got here is the logical climax of taking the single-worst decision at each step for months. First: when a government is elected, it should be allowed to serve a full, five-year term (note: palace gossip and hypothetical appointments don’t make for reasons otherwise).

Second: when the government of the largest party is indeed torpedoed for no reason, the solution is fresh polls, for a fresh mandate. It isn’t to reinstall the most satirical candidates for each office (see: health, interior, finance). Nor should their deposed rivals sit outside the National Assembly in a huff, break their toys, and refuse to be a part of any parliamentary process. (It’s why they got played for saps by the VoNC in the first place.)

Third, once reinstalled, the new guys should have a vision slightly grander than busting out of jail and securing a single appointment.

Fourth, when the unity government does prove a flaming disaster, and the economy puts a gun to its own head, it may be best to stop with the science experiment, and let the popular will find its level – through general elections, and a new government that can make hard choices.

Fifth, if general elections are still nowhere to be found, the road to sanity won’t lie through yet more muddling: through Balochistan jor-tor or MQM remarriages or preserving the dinosaur bones of old technocrats.

It’s that chain of messes that got us here: the popular will is dead, the hands of First World moneylenders are around our throat, and implosion is around the corner.

For once, let the people decide. There’s not much more left to unravel.

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