Alas! We are today like motionless wooden marionettes singing opera with flapping mouths which somehow fits with the bizarre dark humour of the medieval ages. Our wooden faces do express the most dramatic of human emotions; lust, jealousy, fear, anger, greed and despair, but with a surrealist, weirdly hilarious quality. We are endlessly lost in what could pass for a puppetry drama where actors made of flesh and actors made of wood are together producing a constant comedy of errors. Our problem is that we don’t even know what our problem is. We are in the habit of only running after illusions.
We are addicted to our television screens looking for a new scandal every evening which depending on its ratings lasts a week or so. It not only loses fast its spell and lure but also quickly starts bleaching out of our memories. We feel starved of fun and excitement, and anxiously, if not ravenously, start looking for a new, more juicy scandal. And we like to make every scandal our cause célèbre. We are a fun-loving people. But poor as we are, our fun is mostly at the cost of others’ ‘fun’. And we have more fun if it is at the cost of our rulers’ fun.
A continuous political yo-yo blowing hot and cold gives us special pleasure. Symptom, not the disease is our problem. What we never care to understand is that the problems that we face in our daily lives are only symptoms of a disease. Our present neither-parliamentary-nor-presidential system has no parallel anywhere in the world or even in contemporary history. The closest we could trace a parallel is perhaps the Machiavellian “princedom” where the “corrupt masses” can only be controlled by a prince who is either the “child of fortune” or who acquires power through “deceit and manipulation.”
The Machiavellian ‘prince’ has to be “hypocritical and vacillating” wearing the face of “mercy, faith and integrity” only to create a public image. No wonder, in Machiavellian tradition, our rulers have kept the people hostage to their personal whims. Today’s scene is evidence enough that even the Quaid’s worries were not unwarranted. He had warned us against what he called the “evils” of bribery, corruption, nepotism and jobbery, and wanted the government to put these evils down with “an iron hand.” We not only failed to grapple with these challenges but in fact are living with these problems as an “integral” part of our society.
Double Shah is a character that now epitomises Pakistan’s new identity. Everyone wants to multiply his or her wealth. No wonder, we have a history of scams ranging in recent memory from the cooperatives scandal of the 90s to the shameful Kasur scandal of the new millennium. Other scandals involved Pakistan Steel Mills, Karachi Stock Exchange, KESC, PTCL, Gwadar Port, Nandipur Project, HBL, MCB, Punjab Bank, Pakistan Railways, and, of course, the PIA. All these scandals disappeared from the news and our memory as fast as they had appeared. But this is only a part of our pathetic story.
We have also been making global headlines with mega scandals involving some of our most high-profile leaders. The latest one is the Panama Leaks implicating big names behind offshore shell companies from all over the world. There are over 200 Pakistanis involved in offshore connections. We also figure among the twelve national leaders in the list of world’s 143 politicians together with their families and close associates. Most of the beneficiaries of this mode of investment are those who have colossal wealth that cannot be managed by their own banks. Capital is like water that finds channels to flow into the parched lands.
It’s all about offshore investments for low-tax-high-yield profits. They call it ‘private banking’ and in fact, one of our former imported prime ministers distinguished himself globally for his outstanding ‘private banking’ skills and still remains an asset for offshore investments of many in the Gulf’s ruling class. But let’s be fair. The Panama Leaks on Pakistan are no revelation. They only corroborate what we already knew. Who didn’t know of the bank accounts in Switzerland, the well-known Surrey Palace, the chateau in France, homes in Britain, Spain and Florida?
And everyone knew who owned the flats in London. Also, no other country is familiar with the normatic practice of forgiving by law the highly-placed plunderers of national exchequer. The known plunderers and looters, murderer and the killers could not have a safer haven anywhere else in the world. Doesn’t the NRO ring any bells in our memory? Why all this hullabaloo over something that we have been living with, helplessly, if not complacently, as our fait accompali in a rotten system?
In Karl Sagan’s words, “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
With no one like the legendary rulers of Mysore around, our offshore-political elites always in power by electoral rotation have been ruling this country in the Mughal style with a neocolonial touch reminiscent of the British Raj. Our colonial masters then were here only on deputation. Their families, homes, banks, hospitals, educational institutions for their children and their landed properties were all in their native land. In our case, with rare exceptions, our post-independence neocolonial masters took the opposite route.
Also, for decades, our rulers have been allocating millions of acres of areas in Southern Punjab including Rahim Yar Khan, Bahawalpur and Balochistan to Arab princes for their annual hunting expeditions just to gain their goodwill and personal favours. They never understood much less valued the sanctity of independence or that of the country’s territorial integrity. To them, their native land, Pakistan is only an ‘offshore’ colony which they have left at the mercy of corrupt bureaucracy and chosen political gladiators.
And to take good care of the poor people, organised criminal gangs like the Chhotu Gang and multiple Lyari gangs have grown under the umbrella of major political parties which also sponsor some of the ‘popular’ gangsters as their candidates for election to provincial and national assemblies. In this dreary scenario, one is reminded of the spirit of a defiant verse in an old American song composed originally by famous singer Lead Belly in his Bourgeois Blues:
“In the home of the brave, land of the free,
I will not be put down by no bourgeoisie.”
Indeed, a time comes when a nation must wake up from its slumber and take control of its own destiny. Things will not change unless the people step out of their inertia and make their clarion call loud and clear. Only a drastic change in our anachronistic system can free us of the same old usurpers of the country’s politics and wealth. Changing faces will not do. The system itself must change.
Let’s not make the Panama Leaks our nemesis or a cause célèbre. No one is guilty until proven by law. This is a legal issue, not political. It must be addressed, not by politics or street violence, but by free and fair legal process. Parliament must also keep out of it, lest we are sucked into the bottomless black hole of our corrupt politics.
For now at least, let’s pray for the health and wellbeing of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Abdul Sattar Edhi, the former in London for a medical checkup and the latter in Karachi for treatment. For us, both are respectable, one as an elected leader and the other as a renowned social worker. Let’s hope time will soon come when our leaders will also prefer banks and hospitals in their own country rather than going to Panama or London.