Numbers are thrown about with gleeful abandon; $10 billion is laundered every year, $200 billion is stashed abroad, $180 billion exists to be spent on housing, $30 billion is about to be invested by one company. As the figures fly thick and fast, they are met with the cacophonous applause of the initiated and the converted, with tweets, stories, and posts on social media enthusiastically and, more importantly, uncritically endorsing the messiah’s latest pronouncements.

It does not, of course, end with numbers. Pakistan is in the midst of a 4th, 5th, and perhaps even 6th generation war, beset on all sides by dozens of hostile states and their agents, whose sole mission is to eradicate this enduring bastion of faith. Yet all is not lost in the international arena, for Pakistan is fortunate to have a few stalwart friends whose leaders are both willing and eager to shower the country with tens of billions of dollars in aid and giveaways in exchange for nothing more than sweet words and whispered pleasantries. Once again, a rapturous audience on social media and glued to television screens across the country cheers, celebrating the strategic genius and diplomatic nous of the chosen one.

There is still more to come; corruption is the root of all evil in Pakistan. What is behind the shambolic state of the economy? Corruption. How to explain the bureaucracy’s lack of capacity and efficiency? Corruption. Rampant lawlessness? Corruption. The filthy state of the nation’s toilets? Corruption. It is everywhere and is responsible for everything. Yet, all is not lost, for the government has a plan to end this plague that has eaten away at the country’s soul. The pure and noble individuals who now hold office will, through sheer force of will, bring the corrupt to justice while ushering in a new era of prosperity and as the criminals who ruled the country in the past languish in jail, the international community (including many of the abovementioned hostile states) will rally to support Pakistan by quickly returning the billions, perhaps even trillions, of dollars of looted wealth stashed in their banks. Across the country, millions lap these pronouncements up like mana from heaven, with credulity only being strained by the sheer spectacle of so many believing so much so unquestioningly.

The new PTI government has asked for time before judgements are made about its performance. This is not an unreasonable request, nor is it incorrect for the government to claim that much of the mess it is currently dealing with is a product of the incompetence of its predecessors. Yet, even with these caveats in mind, it is hard to shake the feeling that the PTI is in over its head, displaying a disturbing combination of both a surrender to the forces of the status quo it campaigned against and an increasingly evident cluelessness about the actual mechanics of running a country. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the government’s dithering over approaching the IMF for a bailout; for months, those in the know have pointed out that, rightly or wrongly, the country would inevitably have to go to the IMF to deal with its immediate financial problems. Those criticising the PTI for its decision to do so are missing the point; what was and is more problematic were the government’s attempts to pretend that economic reality could simply be ignored, and that harebrained schemes involving approaching countries like China and Saudi Arabia for bailouts actually made sense. Similarly, despite the Prime Minister’s words to the contrary, it is not at all reassuring to hear ministers and spokespersons repeatedly answering questions about the government’s economic agenda with long rants about corruption. Yes, corruption is obviously a problem that needs to be dealt with, but it is not at all clear how fanciful schemes to recover billions worth of allegedly stolen national wealth can somehow act as substitutes for concrete proposals aimed at addressing structural problems around taxation and rent-seeking in the economy.

Matters are made worse by the nature of the stories being sold by the government. It is not just that the government appears to have bad ideas, it is that these ideas are constantly being backed up and justified by questionable ‘facts’ and outright falsehoods. The entire narrative about corruption is a case in point; that many of Pakistan’s politicians and governments have been corrupt is not disputed, nor is the need to hold them accountable. Yet, when the government cites fantastical numbers about the scale of corruption without citing any credible sources, and when it announces grand plans, such as the repatriation of embezzled money from foreign jurisdictions, with virtually no global precedent or mooring in political reality, it does not do itself or its supporters any favours. Such exercises in deception, willful or otherwise, simply reinforce the idea that this is a government without substance, forever trapped by the confrontational rhetoric of its time in opposition, and genuinely lacking the capacity and the impetus to formulate and implement policy.

Maybe all of this should not be surprising, given how it simply reflects the times that we are living in. As the political discourse around the world becomes increasingly polarised, with the fragmented and partisan nature of the media and information landscape generating silos and echo chambers within which people select their own ‘facts’ and narratives in alignment with their preferred leaders, parties, and movements, it may just be the case that reality simply does not matter as much as how it is spun and perceived. When the PTI’s digital warriors take to Twitter to start ‘trends’ about some issue or the other, the veracity of the claims they make is not as important as the fact that there is a captive audience willing to consume what they are being told without question. It is ironic that when the very nature of what is or is not true is debated, and when the proliferation of information makes it harder and harder to gauge what is or is not accurate, all that is said becomes plausible and believable. Jean Baudrillard famously claimed that contemporary capitalism is characterized by the consumption of symbols, with perceptions of reality, rather than reality itself, structuring our lives. Perhaps the same can be said about politics; why should the PTI bother with reality when its representation of it is all that is required to secure its position?

 

The writer is an assistant professor          of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk