An Ever-Spinning Wheel
By Shireen M. Mazari

Being away in my village over the Eid week is always a restful experience but also one which brings a different perspective to national issues. While Islamabad was abuzz with issues relating to the independence of the judiciary, presidential elections and the NRO, in the village (the last bit of southern Punjab) no one seemed to be particularly pushed about any of these issues. As someone pointed out, their issues have remained the same despite political changes in Islamabad. There is the major issue of health services, of education, of natural gas and electricity, of neglect of the agricultural sector, crime and the terror of criminal gangs supported by some local politicians. In addition, the absolute absence of development money coming from the district is another issue as is the control of the local administration by the district government. So far there has been no accountability of the funds put at the disposal of either the previous district nazim or the present one.
Regardless of who has or is in power, things have not changed much in these parts. While the family does what it can in terms of education and health, the big issue is why should Pakistani citizens in these rural areas have to be dependent on the largesse, goodwill or charity of individuals? Is it not their right as citizens to have access to the same basic facilities -- meager though they may be -- that their urban counterparts have access to? Yet, despite handing over countless fact sheets and data to get the provincial government to move on education and health, beyond a sympathetic hearing nothing moves.
As for agriculture, we had a bumper wheat crop and the hoarders created a wheat shortage nationwide. Who will bring them to book? The sugar crop looks good too but who will control the sugar barons? Who will ensure that southern Punjab gets its share of water rather than it being diverted to the more politically sensitive lobbies of Sindh? It is no wonder then that at least in the area around my village no one lays great store by any change of political face. In any case, we all seem to be caught in a cyclical merry-go-round which offers nothing new -- just more of the same. It is the same pattern that repeats itself at the national level also, but in our rural area the exuberance for change is long dead since there is now a feeling that "change" is simply a repeat of the past. That is why, unlike in the urban areas, and perhaps the rural areas of Sindh, Ms Bhutto's return has not yet become a topic for discussion in our part of southern Punjab.
In fact, as Ms Bhutto returns, barring some last minute rethink, beyond the throngs galvanized by local leaders to welcome her back one cannot but feel entrapped in the "no beginning and no ending" model of Pakistani politics. We go around in circles, "like an ever-spinning wheel, never ending or beginning" -- to borrow from an English pop song -- with no new starts and no old closures. Despite constitutional changes, military coups and visible corruption, the story remains unchanged in terms of the main players. Pakistan has over 160 people, but we cannot shake off the limited and familial construct of our political leadership. The Sharifs were expected to bring in new, middle class, entrepreneurial and professional blood but they also got sucked into the old construct. So we have continued to have the same pattern post-1971-- electoral politics with a face-off between the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardari, military takeovers and/or interim setups and back to the same electoral pattern again with nothing new or afresh to take the country truly forward. As for the other political parties, they have been unable to move beyond the "balancer" role at the national level. What happens to the committed souls who manage to galvanize the nation's spirit for particular causes? Why and where to they disappear?
With Ms Bhutto's return, the nightmare of carpetbaggers from the old "Pinky" crowd -- with a few new opportunist additions -- is already beginning to haunt many who saw the nation and its resources being treated as a personal fiefdom to be pillaged and plundered at will. Only this time it will be worse because they will have the sponsorship of powerful external players like the US and the UK. Perhaps the biggest nightmare is going to be the US private security personnel that are reportedly going to be accompanying Ms Bhutto. The havoc that US private security firms can cause should be studied carefully by the Pakistani nation and information is available abundantly in the case of some US security firms such as Combat Support Associates and Blackwater USA. The latter, especially, has unleashed its murderous personnel on to the innocent Iraqi populace. They have killed unarmed Iraqi civilians by the hundreds and the cases are well-documented but they are all immune from Iraqi laws. Will Ms Bhutto's private US security personnel also be immune from Pakistani laws?
The issue is important because the last thing Pakistan needs right now is to have the US introduce private security personnel -- effectively mercenaries -- into the war on terror in this region. Yet, given Ms Bhutto's commitment to effectively give the US open access to Pakistan -- what little is still being denied them -- the private US security personnel may be the opening desired by the US to bring in the mercenary factor into the war on terror in Pakistan.
Perhaps the US factor is the only new input into our never changing political wheel. While the US has always influenced certain of our political elites, never before has the US tried so brazenly to engineer our political milieu. Can the US factor alter the national dynamics and liberate us from the 'no beginning-no ending' pattern of politics? Will our people be up to the challenge of rejecting the 'Made in the USA' model of politics and political leadership and look for a truly national leadership ensconced in indigenous values and traditions? Or will we continue to accept the US as the puppet string-pullers?
There are critical domestic and external issues impinging on our choice as a nation. There is the increasingly costly and debilitating US-designed war on terror; there is our relationship with India now enshrined in dialogue but which requires us to reject the Indian model of dialogue based on a Cold War model; there is our whole worldview to be redefined in a truly global rather than a Washington-focused prism; and, most importantly, there is the issue of a holistic national reconciliation through truth and tolerance for 'the other' as well as an embracing of our rich national diversity.
As a beginning, breaking with the ever-spinning political wheel of the past requires a self-confidence and assuredness in ourselves as Pakistanis. Only in this sense is the Pakistani nation truly at an important political crossroad today.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Courtesy The News)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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