PPP's Matryoshka dolls

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, Tuesda...

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Food and energy prices soared, the population and bombs exploded alike, floods set new records, populations were displaced and minorities massacred, angry protestors took to the streets and democracy, poor thing, was imperiled by the confluence of it all – a few years from hence, will we all look back on this government’s term and wonder: What in god’s name were we thinking? Why were we not alarmed when it became obvious we’d crossed every possible redline all at once?

This week, just for a short time, it seemed that the government’s worst nightmare had come true: thousands of demonstrators surged through the sweltering streets of Punjab to protest persistent shortages of electricity, burning offices of distribution companies and clashing with police in a disturbance that underlined growing popular anger over the government’s inability to provide basic necessities of life.

Riots are the language of the unheard and Sunday and Monday’s protests were nourished by years of unexpressed deprivation. For a moment there, it seemed we were seeing the kind of rage that once unleashed couldn’t be easily restrained, sent back to where it came from. But Tuesday arrived and the ferocity of the riots eased up in Lahore. The PPP, after all, knows a thing or two about politics: unrest in Lahore meant the PML-N’s so-called secret plan to put the government on the mat had succeeded. So the prime minister personally intervened and fuel supplies were restored to two major power plants – simple as that.

And so, Lahore was neutralised – except by the afternoon, the riots moved to rural areas as supplies were diverted to the more important cities. Did the PPP consider this possibility? Well. You win some you lose some.

So even as things calmed down just a little, everyone was left wondering: why would the PPP, the party of the awam, court disaster in this way? And why would the PML-N, the party of the trader, allow the GT road to descend into chaos and cause damage to its core constituency, the trader-base, that is already losing heavily due to power cuts?

The almost total collapse of the power system in Punjab on Monday was a godsend for a short-sighted PML-N since it made the dengue-bitten party look better in comparison. But in its euphoria at seeing the PPP sink in a mess of its own making, the PML-N forgot that it also had to pretend it cared about things like damage to public property. By then, however, many grid stations had already been set ablaze and much teargas dispensed at violent demonstrators. Time for Plan B: fiery speeches in the National Assembly, sit-ins outside parliament, a march to the presidency – all of it embellished with promises of never ever doing anything unconstitutional. But let’s see how successful these new tactics are, especially given the sticking image of MNA Anjum Aqeel Khan, accused in a Rs6 billion corruption scam, walking with Ch Nisar Ali Khan, demanding an end to corruption. Thursday morning irony?

So that’s the N-League’s game: the party has learned so artfully to fuse a constant protest against the government with a constant submission to it. Friendly opposition or deadly opposition, depending on the day of the week.

What about the PPP? What’s its plan? Where are the emergency measures to conserve power and boost production where possible? Even in the midst of the current power predicament, the contours of the next crisis are already visible. With the onset of winter, gas shortages will climb and hydel power generation will drop, leaving a massive gulf to be filled by furnace oil fired power plants that are already too expensive to operate.

What will the PPP do? Long-term measures aren’t on its agenda; patronage is. Over 228 villages in Sindh have been receiving electricity for many years without paying bills, thanks to the Hyderabad Electric Supply Company. The prime minister, who can’t be accused of being attentive, often starts rambling about the Benazir Income Support Programme when reporters ask him about power outages. What are a few hours without electricity when you can get a few thousand rupees every other month, right? Just don’t forget to vote for the party of the Shaheeds – and here’s a Watan Card. See you at the polls.
(From The News, Pakistan)
But soon, the days of loadshedding will be over because there won’t be any electricity in the grid. After saying goodbye to the IMF, the government will either have to bridge its deficit of around Rs1,000 billion by obtaining loans from commercial banks or getting the State Bank to print money. Hyperinflation up ahead? Economic collapse slowly looking more and more certain? And in the face of it all, the PPP government without even a minimum agenda for reform?

Zardari & Co are, as ever, counting on being pulled back to safety by the West because Pakistan is, y’know, “too big to fail”. Except as US/Nato forces prepare to pull out of Afghanistan, bailing out a squandering, crooked government unwilling to take either governance or security seriously couldn’t be very high on their priority-list. What’s worse, even the IMF won’t have any more of our licentiousness now. Debt has swelled, prices are soaring, revenue is lower than ever before, and the masses – well, there is no punishment more dreadful than hopelessness.

How does the PPP’s Houdini, President Zardari, plan to steer his rickety ship of government through this sea of insurmountable challenges and ever closer to its final destination: completing its term?

For now, there are no convincing answers. Just denial. Denial after denial, each one wrapped into the last, like Matryoshka dolls.

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