It was a script that was as depressing as it was predictable. As reports emerged of the existence of a massive child abuse ring in Kasur, with hundreds of victims and close to a dozen politically connected perpetrators, the usual suspects were quick to declare that the entire matter had been blown out of proportion. Kasur’s DPO declared that nearly all the allegations were fake, with rival parties involved in a land dispute attempting to implicate each other in false cases. Furthermore, according to the DPO, the (very) few incidents of abuse that he felt were genuine could not be called child abuse because they involved teenagers. For the DPO, the fact that the victims would still be underage and would still have experienced sexual assault was of apparently little consequence.

Following the uproar that erupted in the wake of these comments, the Chief Minister of Punjab suspended Kasur’s DPO while, as is his wont, also promising to oversee a ‘high-level’ inquiry into the incident. The fate that befell the DPO was not shared by the provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah who, like the DPO, rubbished claims of child abuse by referring to the existence of a property dispute in the area. A complete and total refusal to take sexual violence seriously is nothing new for Mr. Sanaullah, who has often made similar statements with regards to cases of rape. For example, when a young woman in Muzaffargarh set herself ablaze in March 2014 following the refusal of the police to register a case against the men who had raped her, Mr. Sanaullah claimed that the entire incident was linked to a business rivalry, and that there had only been an ‘attempt’ to rape the young woman (something that Mr. Sanaullah presumably found to be unremarkable). Then, as now, the Chief Minister instituted an inquiry into what had happened. Then, as now, it is likely that nothing substantive will emerge from these proceedings. Sombre faces have been photographed, serious noises have been made, and the political elite have already moved on to other matters.

Although the public outrage generated by what happened in Kasur is both necessary and understandable, the sad fact of the matter is that there was never any reason to believe that things could have been handled differently. Castigating the police for not doing their duty makes sense, but also implies that there are circumstances in which they would have acted otherwise. Similarly, reports that members of the gang involved in the child abuse were protected from the police by powerful politicians should also be unsurprising; after all, it is precisely this kind of nexus that lies at the heart of the thana-katcheri patronage politics that characterizes Pakistan’s political landscape.

As the media increasingly fixates on the travails of the MQM in Karachi, as well as claims that the PTI’s sit-ins in 2014 had the tacit support of elements within the military establishment, it is worth asking what the entire point of politics and government in Pakistan is. Amidst the spectacle of leaders making fiery speeches and trading barbs, grandiloquently trumpeting their ‘achievements’ while lambasting their opponents for their shortcomings, it is easy to see how something fundamental is being missed. The endless discussion and debate that is repeated ad nauseum on television screens across the country ultimately amounts to very little of substance; the posturing and positioning of Pakistan’s political leaders and parties seems to be inherently disconnected from the lived realities of this country’s citizens. The world in which several hundred children can be systematically abused by a gang of predators is far removed from the one inhabited by Pakistan’s political luminaries, all of whom seem to be saying and doing terribly important things whose actual impact remains difficult to discern.

The reality is that for all the sound and fury that it generates, politics in Pakistan is actually quite banal and tedious, with its public performance by the PML-N, PPP, PTI, and other parties (as well as the military establishment) doing little more than providing cover for a system that is structurally oriented towards protecting the powerful and subjugating the weak. There is perhaps no better illustration of this idea than an examination of why people actually seek public office in Pakistan. Rather than doing so out of a burning desire to make things better (evidence for which remains thin on the ground) or because of a strong ideological commitment to a particular vision of society (clearly not the case in a context where parties are defined more by opportunism than any concrete programmatic agenda), it has always manifestly been the case that, from the lowest tiers of the state machinery to the highest echelons of government, the motivation for acquiring public office has been the desire for private gain.

In the colonial era, the gradual process through which the British incorporated locals within the government was aimed at strengthening the Raj by providing quiescent allies with access to state patronage in exchange for their continuing loyalty. Given that this access was largely restricted to the elite, those who enjoyed positions within the government were able to exercise a tremendous amount of power, dispensing patronage and acting as agents who could provide a variety of services to their clients within society. From the very beginning, the pursuit of public office was thus linked to gaining the capacity through which to accumulate personal power while simultaneously using it to cultivate the loyalty and support of others.

A lot has changed in the last seven decades but it is not difficult to see how this particular feature of colonial political institutions has remained intact in Pakistan. It is likely that many of the police personnel involved in the Kasur child abuse investigation simply joined the force to pursue private goals, just as the politicians who allegedly protected the perpetrators were simply using their power to dispense patronage to their clients. Public welfare and the pursuit of the collective good has never been at the forefront of Pakistan’s politics, and this is not likely to change any time soon, not least of all due to the utter inability of the current mainstream parties and Establishment to envisage the kind of radical change that will be required to fundamentally alter the status quo.