As we enter the season of short daylight hours and long dark nights, it is not the smell of the crisp roasted nuts that is on our mind but the hot political landscape that seems to have transformed a small fireplace into a bonfire that threatens to burn our stables and homes. This is the season of dark politics. Everyone who is someone in the corridors of power and public is a target of attacks, criticism and harassment. This politics is dangerous, divisive and destructive. It is worse than the Pandemic the country braved a year ago.
The touchstones of dark politics are many like the rows of protruding headstones in a busy graveyard. These touchstones have always been there right from the independence of Pakistan. Dark politics started with the inexplicable massacre of innocent people caught inside the wrong borders at partition. It was there when Quaid-e-Azam was informed by his British Chief of Army Staff that regular troops allocated to Pakistan could not be dispatched to Srinagar to liberate Kashmir. Dark politics was there when Quaid-e-Azam was not provided immediate medical help in Quetta in the last hours of his life. After his death, dark politics continued to play a murky role in the history of the country. Unseen hands masterminded the assassination of Liaqat Ali Khan and Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s two dynamic prime ministers. They were there too at the mysterious C130 plane crash of President Zia ul Haq and the country’s seven top military offices. Dark politics cost the country the loss of East Pakistan. It resulted in the judicial murder of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It brought terrorism inside Pakistan’s northern areas. Dark politics also destroyed peace and development in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi and disrupted the education and prospects of two generations of youth. There can be many explanations and conspiracy theories about who controlled the levels of dark politics. Are these masterminds foreign based, home grown or a combination of both, or are they entirely de-personalized being a byproduct of the system that creates and sustains them. While we cannot identify the masterminds, we can openly see the destructive nature of dark politics.
Dark politics enables murder gangs to get away from the iron hands of the law for lack of evidence or ill preparation of prosecution cases that don’t stand ground in courts. It can make a small group exercise the levers of power covertly by pressure tactics and coercion. It can bring about clandestine meetings at night between actors who don’t want to be seen negotiating with one another in daylight. It can disrupt the civilized narrative of conversation and replace it with free verse by political leaders and spokespersons in public debates, press briefings and private discourses. It can also result in crowding the judiciary in innumerable lawsuits in the guise of seeking interpretation of the constitution or the law or conduct considered unacceptable by society.
Dark politics strengthens control of power by presenting reality in a dark and twisted version. It is not hesitant to use morbidity, muscle and murder to achieve its goal. Its roots are ancient. It goes back to the ancient empires and thinkers like Chanakya and Machiavelli who justify keeping power by any means and glorifying might over right. In modern times the role of dark politics is often performed by the deep state. It employs intelligence agencies to safeguard power and keeps democratic leaders from crossing the red lines. All countries have their establishment and deep states. It is considered fundamental to safeguarding the sovereignty and independence of their countries. Dark politics, it seems, is not the sole intellectual property of one country alone.
Dark politics uses democratic space to look good and kosher. It controls democratic processes and feeds on its weaknesses. In developing countries these weaknesses are many and varied. The imperfections of democratic systems provide a fertile ground to dark politics to take roots and flourish. In dark politics there is an entente cordiale between those who exercise real power but lack legitimacy and those who have legitimacy but lack moral or physical power to exercise the writ of law. The latter can wield power only when they become the mask carriers of the former. As a result of this unholy alliance, the legitimate but powerless oligarchs get the positions, privileges and protocol they bargain for. In turn they buy the loyalties of their movers and shakers to deliver their orders in return for contract appointments, postings, promotions, pensions and plots. This cabal rules until another group of power-hungry politicians joins ranks to challenge their authority in the name of elections and democracy, placing the real power brokers in a dilemma as to which group can be a better mask carrier for them for the continuation of the status quo.
In order to seek endorsement from the people the power wielders create a romanticized version of reality with an idealized statecraft and an unapologetic elitism that appeals to the patriotism and naivety of the masses and their cheerleaders. There are more thrills and mysteries in the fertile territory of political positions and electoral campaigns which are made more interesting by their sponsors and promoters using conventional and unconventional instruments, helped by technology, and where necessary money, to get the desired outcome. But whatever the script and the cast of characters, dark politics is brilliant, mesmerizing and hard to resist emotionally. That is why there is little resistance to it from intellectuals and civil society because they themselves get drawn by its strong magnetic pull like a Supernova, generating more energy and light than it consumes.
Things sometimes get out of control, as they have become now for Pakistan, when dark politics becomes too dark and unpleasant resulting in political instability, murders of journalists, mysterious disappearances, deaths of prime witnesses, whistle blowers and investigative reporters and assassination attempts on political leaders reminiscent of previous dark times. In this environment, everyone becomes concerned about his life and job security, with the result that everyone digs his heels deep in the sand and is unwilling to compromise. Added to this downward trend is poverty, low economic growth and natural disasters. Pakistan survived the Covid Pandemic better than other countries in 2021, but in 2022 it suffered badly on all three counts resulting in lack of investor confidence and an alarming degree of political divide and instability. The previous government was removed through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence because it was unable to keep its coalition partners together who were concerned about high inflation and rising cost of living. The present government is also under severe pressure for calling a new general election because of high inflation and increasing cost of living.
When dark politics takes hold, effective governance, normal functioning of democracy and the business of addressing real issues take back seat. In the present environment of political protests and defensive counter narratives, no one is prepared to discuss the economy and show how Pakistan can be taken out of this fall. In dark politics the normal function of the legislature is given to long debates too detached from the primary concerns of the citizens; the judiciary is mired in resolving political lawsuits; police, teachers, journalists, doctors and unions become politicized and the welfare of the common man is forgotten by the common man himself. Country’s problems skyrocket but dark politics hides these in darkness.
One aspect of dark politics being so overwhelming is our hectic lifestyle which has affected our attitudes and relationships. Intolerance has increased, divorce rates have plummeted and a polite and civilized social discourse has given way to open disagreements and isolationism. People are becoming self-centred. They are worried about their families and kids, house mortgages, job security, marital relationships and real or perceived fears about the future instead of observing moral values and pursuing Halal living. High doses of daily stress and anxiety are leading to drug abuse and unacknowledged mental health issues. We have no instrument to gauge how political stress and fear of getting passed over for parliamentary tickets or losing an election, or court cases after leaving a high public office affects the attitudes of political leaders and their workers, but we do see how our lawmakers have participated in political hatemongering, unproven accusations of corruption and politics of exclusion. Some have also indulged in self-flagellation. The temptation to attain and hold on to power is mesmerising but the fear of losing it can be killing. The glamour, fame and a sense of a dearly earned status our politicians feel is infinite. But do we know if having these vibes is a good thing if a leader has anger management or confrontationist issues. Whoever is holding the power when he gets it right becomes a great leader for his people; but if he gets it wrong, he falls prey to Narcissism, Nero’s self-delusion and Hamlet syndrome and takes the nation down with him.
One constant feature of seasons is that they are transient. This season of dark politics will pass like other previous seasons, hopefully without exacting a heavy cost. And if by revisiting us it leaves some good lessons to learn, it should be welcomed as a mock test that strengthens our internal defense system and enables taking precautions in the future. No doubt these are interesting times in Pakistan, but these will not stay forever. As someone rightly said, if winter comes, can summer be far behind.
*Syed Sharfuddin is a political analyst and a former Pakistani diplomat. He has held senior level positions at the Commonwealth Secretariat London and Muslim Aid UK.
The Season of Dark Politics