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Who, indeed, will bell the omniscient cat?

If we are to find the surefootedness required to tackle the challenges to come, everyone must first be made to kneel before the sword of the law.



Once upon a time, a group of mice, finally fed up of living under the constant tyranny of their archnemesis, the Cat, decided that the time had come to take some concrete action against their feline foe. A grand council was convened, and there, behind closed doors, the little mice gathered together and deliberated on the best course of action. Someone suggested this, another suggested that, but even after prolonged discussions, they could not manage to settle on any definitive strategy. Finally, one mouse had a eureka moment and cried out: “I’ve got it!”. Taking the podium, it reminded its fellow rodents that what made the Cat so dangerous was the stealth with which it operated. Its slinky footsteps ensured that it could not be heard, its nocturnal nature allowed it to work under the covers of shadow, while its ability to pounce unannounced guaranteed that it could always take them by surprise.

What they needed to do, it surmised, was to somehow take these sneaky talents away, and to this end, the mouse made a simple suggestion — why not just tie a bell around its neck? “Bravo, bravo,” said all the mice in the audience, elated on finally finding a solution — except one old geyser, who raised a very pertinent question: “But, who will bell the Cat?” Upon hearing this, the mice began to look at one another. Nervously, they shuffled their feet, and nervously, they twitched their noses. When no one answered, it became clear that none had the courage to undertake this Herculean task. The meeting came to an end, the mice hurried back to the safety of their burrows, and as for the Cat, well, it pretty much kept on doing just as it pleased.

Much like the mice in this rendering of a timeless fable, Pakistan’s politicians too have been locked in a game of hide-and-seek with their own forever enemy — the pesky ‘establishment’, that invisible part of the army’s top brass that has apparently been using the formalised political hegemony of its institution to steer Pakistan from one shipwreck to another. Apart from three decades of direct rule, it stands accused of having “pulled strings from behind the scenes to oust elected governments, propped up pressure groups, created divisions in parties to split their vote bank, financed opposition parties to destabilise elected set-ups, etc in order to maintain its grip on political power … its presence can be felt in every sphere — including the media, judiciary and business”. This shows too. In a recent speech in Balochistan, Mr Sharif Jr, our premier incumbent, stated that he would like to, much like any other NGO, “raise the issue” of missing persons before “powerful quarters”. His predecessor-in-interest, Mr Khan, has by now confessed that he did not have the authority due to his office, that his “hands were tied” during his shortlived tenure, and that “everyone knows where the real power lies in Pakistan”.

Before his party reverted to the politics of mediation, Mr Sharif Sr too was openly claiming that his government was sent packing after a combo-punch delivered by the judicial-military nexus, and Mr Gilani, while speaking on the floor of the Senate on whether an ailing Musharraf ought to be allowed to return, dropped all trace of pretence and declared that since no one was “able to stop him from leaving”, no one will be “able to stop him from returning”. Such “decisions”, he candidly admitted, “will be taken elsewhere”. When one prime minister after another begins brazenly announcing their political impotence, how are citizens of this country meant to have a modicum of belief that they live in a functioning democracy? Are our elected representatives truly that helpless? Are they perhaps so deeply compromised? Or, are they merely Janus-faced — democrats by the light of day, co-conspirators at night? See, for all their grand gestures of ‘resistance’ and their shallow calls for ‘civilian supremacy’, it is difficult to feel sorry for our political class.

Whenever presented with an opportunity to bargain for goodie bags, they rarely fail to fall in line. What else might explain the fawning sincerity with which all our mainstream political parties — PTI, PML-N, PPP — rushed to secure an extension for the current army chief? The bill took 20 minutes to pass in the National Assembly, even less in the senate. Who will bell the Cat indeed, if everyone’s trying to woo it? If undemocratic interferences are to stop, parliament must become something more than a chamber of convenience and return to its basic functions. The army’s laws must be revised. Intelligence agencies must be roped in, their mandate, function and territorial competence defined with effective oversight. And the legitimacy of the military’s sprawling economic empire must be tested against constitutional touchstones. One should not overstate the importance of any such exercise (laws sans enforcement via political will are utterly useless), but let us not undervalue it either. Laws provide us with the beginning point of accountability and without them, we remain clueless as to where to even start. This is precisely why, even today, we find ourselves debating the merits and demerits of ‘neutrality’. There can be but one demand: obedience to the Constitution.

The sooner this is all done, the better, because the civ-mil imbalance is not, as is often believed, our most pressing problem — that remains lawlessness and total elite capture, located within a model of development that places the pursuit of individual over collective interest. Pakistan is fast approaching a dangerous convergence of destabilising factors: a youth bulge with very little prospects, a festering crisis of identity, accelerating religious fanaticism and climate change.

Kinship networks, long credited for buffering the unpredictable effects of modernity, are rapidly dissolving. Trust in the system is shattering, aided by a post-truth world where disinformation runs rampant and opinions are formed on WhatsApp forwards. What will ultimately be birthed into this void is an ideological monstrosity that no force in this country will be able to control. If we are to find the surefootedness required to tackle the challenges to come, everyone must first be made to kneel before the sword of the law.

A version of this story appears in the print edition of the August 27, 2022, issue.