An extraordinary election

In Pakistan, a readjustment of institutional equations, even a balancing

Who'd have thought? Nawaz Sharif is all set to be prime minister for the third time, while Pervez Musharraf cools his heels in his farmhouse-turned-jail. Imran Khan's electoral insurgency did not set off a "tsunami", never mind the last-minute theatrical appeals from his hospital bed. Asif Ali Zardari's PPP is lucky to get past the 10 per cent mark in the National Assembly. And India has got a ready tutorial that counting votes after an election need not be such a long-drawn affair, that the only loss to accrue from beginning the count once voting closes may be to the exit poll industry.

By all indices, this has been an extraordinary election. It is too soon to determine what juncture it has brought Pakistan to — but it is well within the realm of realism to argue that something has changed. Every election brings a polity and society up for appraisal. And Pakistan's has certainly done so. But for all the imperfections of their democracy that Pakistanis have agonised over, it is their politicians who made this historic transition happen, by forging an all-party consensus on a caretaker mechanism of the sort unlikely in older democracies. Essentially, with a bipartisan agreement, they stabilised the electoral process for partisan contestation. Beyond the composition of the next government in Islamabad, the big question this election poses is: how has it, if at all, changed the way Pakistanis perceive their country and their agency in shaping its future?

An already much-quoted anecdote from a new book (The Dispensable Nation by Vali Nasr) has Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, comparing his country to an imploding financial institution. It was the June of 2009, and the extraordinary rescues of the financial crises were obviously within easy recall when Richard Holbrooke, then the US government's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, came calling in Islamabad. Holbrooke had brought along American journalists in the hope that their dispatches would crackle with intimations of the dire need for Washington DC to focus on Pakistan to win the "good war" in Afghanistan. Zardari, ever eager to play to the gallery, settled for the metaphor of choice in those early days of the Great Recession.

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