Conflict is natural and so is the struggle to acquire power. Power is derived from a multitude of sources, and not necessarily from weapons alone. The former Soviet Union is a perfect example; the largest stockpile of weapons in the world could not prevent its break up. And Switzerland is another example which did not need any weapons to protect its sovereignty.

In any given society, the struggle for ascendancy over others makes an interesting study. Having acquired power or control, the struggle then has to be doubled to retain it and to prevent others from taking it away. This study is even more captivating, and there is another word for it: Politics (in raw form). It’s an ugly exercise, but couched in so many attractive phrases that most of its practitioners also believe otherwise. The acquisition of power is not a negative pursuit per se. After all, what would life be without competition? The same is true for nation states. They would stagnate and decay into oblivion without the spirit of competition.

The ugliness in the context of power stems from two things. First, the methods employed in its acquisition. In Pakistan, what is occurring these days is only a glimpse into our capabilities in this regard. Opinion differs on who is responsible and to what degree, but very few will disagree that we are in a mess of our own making. One group, having acquired power, employing questionable methods, is not ready to give it up. And it is apparent that this group is ready to go to any lengths to retain it. The resultant ugliness is beyond sanity. The other group, justifying its struggle, has also fallen short on the scales. The 17th of June in Model Town Lahore showcased this ugliness like nothing else could.

Secondly, the darker side of this exercise shows up when we start employing power. The process of the acquisition of power does not require any genius. History is replete with examples where street smart groups outwitted others in the race and occupied the seat of power. There are others who were born into it. Power’s ugliest side comes into the lime light when it is employed by an average lot, in any field, who simply lack the capacity to comprehend its vast dynamics.

People in power who believe that everything is doable provided you use enough power, are a threat to any society. They invariably destroy everything around them, including themselves. Politicians and others who have been associated with power, particularly in Pakistan, have amply demonstrated this phenomenon. That Pakistan continues to suffer as a consequence is hardly surprising. That we refuse to learn from it, is embarrassing.

Why do we shoot ourselves each time we get hold of a gun? The majority believes the answer lies within a conspiracy theory, within external factors bent on destroying us. Very few, if any will accept the lack of understanding of the weapon in their hands. That, in short, is the crux of our problem. We refuse to learn that power has its limitations, and that these are extraordinary in scope. Power can accomplish only so much, and then no more. It is destructive by its very nature. Most of us fail to grasp its dynamics and are thus destined to the rubbish bin of history.

Nelson Mandela recognized the boundaries of power and stayed well within them. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was his method of burying the ugliest manifestation of the abuse of power. Singapore’s Li Kuan hardly ever employed spin masters to conjure up his legacy for him. Restraint was the hallmark of both these personalities. They had opponents but no enemies. Both were blessed with tolerance. Both had the courage to rise above themselves. Both had a better future of their next generations as the focal point of their decision making. They knew that this was the surest and most positive method to gain a place in history.

For us, history is just another book to be crammed before an examination. What can we possibly learn from it, and why should we? It is going to repeat itself any way, is it not? One is forced to remember our last stint when Pakistan was close to becoming a superpower, but for a dictator who deprived us of our rightful place in history.

We are back to that same place once again. This time around, our comprehension of the dynamics of power is far worse. Our calculation of the weightage of each player in the power equation is all wrong. In fact, we don’t even know who these players are. And yet we insist. The stagnancy of geography might be an appropriate place for this lot. The dynamics of history, on the other hand, will not be so accommodating.

n    The writer has served on the faculty of Command Staff College and National Defense University.