We and our nervous ’90s By Asha’ar Rehman - Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/03/08/we-and-our-nervous-90s.html

THE ’90s make us all nervous. Not a day passes without someone warning us that we may be falling back into the 1990s.

These warnings portray the last decade of the 20th century as an abyss, conversely saying that we have since risen and are today living in much happier times. This may be a nice attempt at an escape, a very necessary one in the name of progress and development, but it doesn’t take us too far.

Now it may be due to the fact that Aatish was young then and the fires burning inside promised to wrap the world around in a crimson revolutionary embrace, but only if the past could be resurrected and the clarity and the purpose and the verve of the days gone by somehow restored to life.

The 1990s were bereft of the confusion and complications that reign today, even if strictly speaking of politics. The fires burning within charted their own course, forcing their owner along.

It was fun, and much more than that, to take on the forces of bigotry, for example, however powerful the backers. Ask those who wanted to have a reference for Salman Taseer in Lahore how impossible the diversions from the imposed path have become now.

Leave alone that, ask a group of maulvis in the Punjab capital what opposition they have run into of late over their ‘insistence’ on taking out Eid Milad processions in their area. The space for most in society has been shrinking and the asphyxiation its members suffer makes everyone wonder which direction we have progressed in.

Today we are living in much more complicated times in comparison to the events from 20 years ago.

Foreigners go on rampage in a Lahore square, and we don’t quite know how to react. A blast takes place somewhere and given the proliferation that has taken place since after the 1990s, we don’t have info about which of the various terror outfits might have done it. Confusing is the message he conveys when a politician is today able to berate his party leaders at the same time vowing loyalty to the party.

A province burns in isolation and the so-called free media can spare little time to address its grievances, and adjudicators who frown upon contract employment in government offices are criticised for promoting ad hocism within their own institution.

Yet we hear that the men on a rampage were sent over by a friend; the terrorists are a few birds gone astray from our flock who will rejoin us sooner or later; the clean-shaven politician who had kept quiet about his bosses until now is clean and the adjudicator and the media are our future hope.

This is heady stuff and consequently the group of the timid and less intelligent Pakistanis this writer owes allegiance to has a most difficult time getting its preferences and causes right — in contrast to the past.

The dominant argument says the 21st century did indeed hasten the pace of change in Pakistan. The Pakistani lifestyle was shown to have undergone a revolution during the period, in material terms. Money started to flow everywhere, in towns as well as in rural areas. The divide between the rural and urban was blurred and in some cases it ceased to exist, thanks mainly to the communication boom, and the more affluent amongst us were familiarised with methods of money-making they had until then been too shy to try; such as the stock market and the real estate.

The system may have paid a heavy price for this prosperity and its critics may have called it a mere illusion. But that doesn’t really change the fact that exposure has made the people here more demanding.

But of course this is not precisely what is behind the anti-1990s statement. The general reference of those who are using the 1990s as a bogey these days is to the long-running dispute back then between the PPP and its opponents, chiefly Mian Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N.

The assertion is that the coming together of the two sides in the opposition after the 1999 coup by Gen Pervez Musharraf — and celebrated in the form of the Charter of Democracy (CoD) — must form the basis for less acrimonious politics.

Today the talk about the charter is restricted to arguments between politicians that may be related to the people but whose results do not quite provide solutions to some of their basic needs and desires.

While people and their needs have grown, in many ways, the politicians are still by and large imprisoned by the 1990s — in their dealings with each other, but more importantly in their dealings with the people at large. A centralised party and government cannot provide them with real insight into the people’s life.

Local government and corruption were two of the most contentious issues of the 1990s. Recently, while much focus has remained on the CoD causes the PML-N has championed, little has been said, for instance, about the charter’s emphasis on local government essential for close linkages between the rulers and the ruled. And little has been done to purge the accountability bureau of its reputation as an anti-corruption tool governments employ to beat their opponents with.

For the time being, these opponents happen to belong to the PML-Q, which leads to the question: isn’t it a continuation of the past or do we actually need the PML-N and PPP at each other’s throat to resurrect the dreaded decade?

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

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