Pakistani comedy: latest offering

  • Islamabad diary

    Long march successful or not, the fun has already started. Whether Zardari bonzes or Punjab stalwarts, it is no little comedy seeing them running scared and getting hoarse in the mouth as they allege plots against democracy.

    Their confusion has to be applauded too. They can’t seem to make up their minds as to who might be behind Professor Dr Tahirul Qadri’s sudden sky-lab descent from the Canadian skies: the army, MI6, the CIA or, and I am stretching the point, the World Council of Churches.

    The march may come to nothing, although we will have to reserve judgement on this score until it actually happens, but by causing the cesspool of Pakistani politics to shake a bit, Dr Qadri has already earned the nation’s gratitude. Pakistani democracy will survive Dr Qadri’s long march. But the complacency of the Pakistani leadership has been shaken. Isn’t that something to be welcomed?

    Spare a thought for Punjab’s redeemers. They had barely recovered from the scare caused by Imran Khan’s rise and fall. Now this ticking time-bomb from a quarter they could scarcely have suspected.

    There’s a personal angle to this as well, accounting perhaps for the rancour of the attacks on Dr Qadri’s person. Once upon a time in the golden past Dr Qadri used to deliver Friday lectures at the leadership-owned Ittefaq Mosque in Model Town. Now this sudden appearance of the Reverend Allama on the political scene and the Punjab stalwarts think it is aimed specifically at thwart their bid for third-time national power. The frothing at the mouth of their desperate spokesmen...does anything else account for this excess of sentiment?

    A bit of calm may be more in order. Aren’t the US and the UK democracies with elected governments? Yet weren’t million-person marches held there against the Iraq war? Tony Blair lied through his teeth about that war. American officials lied and Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, to his everlasting regret, made a fool of himself when he peddled the same lies before the UN Security Council. Most of the American and British media behaved no better than trained poodles but there were lonely voices which tried to expose the lies and made fun of President Bush and his circle of neo-conservative warriors. And huge anti-war marches were conducted.

    But no one said democracy was being undermined or that the defunct KGB was behind the marches. And Bush was re-elected president for a second term. And the debate about the war went on.

    Dr Qadri says he wants to change the system. Short of preaching treason he has a right to say what he pleases. But will his long march really bring about the change he is talking about? I don’t think so.... unless the army, using the march as a pretext, steps in and puts a pistol to the head of the Zardari government. True, in the conspiracy workshops of Islamabad there has been talk of interim setups for quite some time now. But the climate in and around Pakistan is not exactly conducive for this kind of workmanship.

    It is a leisurely army, which is tempted by the prospect of hard or soft coups. An army engaged in tough, protracted warfare all along our western marches doesn’t answer to this description.

    Sure it would like corruption and incompetence, now permanent features of national life, to abate. Captains and majors and colonels, and senior ranks too, can be as worried about the country as the rest of us. They can be forgiven for thinking that, while the armed forces are at war, the civilian leadership seems pretty relaxed about everything. Will it have escaped anyone’s attention that since our Taliban wars began not one national leader has thought it fit to visit the frontlines? (Such apathy would be considered criminal anywhere else...but let this pass.)

    This adds up to disquiet but does this disquiet mean army intervention in the wake of Dr Qadri’s march? For what one man’s opinion is worth, I don’t think so. Times are different and the army is too stretched out.

    So what are the political paladins scared of? They either know something we don’t, in which case they should communicate their concerns to the nation, or they are so convinced of their inadequacies, their shortcomings, that the first scene to occur which is not part of the standard script and they take fright.

    Their opening weapon was ridicule. Belittle the professor, point out the contradictions of his past, and the bubble he was creating would burst. Momentarily, I think, the professor was put on the back foot, so heavy and concerted was the assault of the ridicule batteries. But he has recovered and, as of now, preparations are on for the march and those who thought that they had the future safely in their pockets are displaying all the signs we associate with nervousness, chief among them the tendency to protest too much. They are protesting too much about the professor and his motives.

    The truth, I suspect, is less fanciful than all the talk of MI6 and the CIA would suggest. The people of Pakistan may be stuck with the political choices they have but these are dull, lack-lustre choices, tested and tried over the years, and no longer capable of inspiring anyone except time-servers and opportunists, and those for whom personal salvation lies in hanging on to the coattails of power.

    When Imran Khan appeared to offer an alternative the young flocked to his banner. But his batteries gave out before they had run their full course. Now comes another figure speaking a different language and he may have done nothing else but he has set people talking – the commentariat certainly is talking nonstop – and he has caused a ripple effect, if nothing more, on the lifeless waters of the Pakistani political scene.

    Movement is life, stagnation death – this being the core of Iqbal’s message – and anything that tends to movement, anything that shatters complacency, which causes a flutter among the dovecots, is to be welcomed.

    One of the things I liked in the professor’s Dec 23 address: when the asar azaan sounded, from the ramparts of the Lahore Fort I think, and he was speaking, without breaking his stride he said, “I offered my prayers before coming here, you also would have said your prayers, the conversation will continue, the Shariat permits this.” Anyone who can bring himself to say this at a public meeting in Pakistan rises in my estimation.

    He is a clergyman who defies the clergy, someone whose interpretation of the faith is refreshingly different from the usual run-of-the-mill orthodoxy constantly drummed into our ears. I think we need more of his kind in the Islamic Republic. It can be noted in passing that some of the sharpest attacks on him have come from clergymen like Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Stepping into their protected kingdom...that’s what the professor is doing.

    His detractors, and there is no shortage of them, make much of episodes in his past – that he was with Musharraf, etc. Talk of pots calling the kettle black. Who in the political arena of today doesn’t have a past, and much more colourful than anything the professor can lay claim to?

    Yes, elections on time, no derailing of the system even if it is pre-ordained that we’ll get the same champions, a prospect enough to dampen the stoutest heart. But why should a march, and a voluntary one at that, be considered hostile to democracy? Elections on time and something to puncture political pomposity – for a nation down in the dumps just the right mixture of medicine.

    Tailpiece: And the winter skies are clearing up, some of the dense fog dissipating. Alarming thought: are the heavens too on the Allama’s side?

  • As usual Ayaz Amir is a breath of fresh air!

  • Only PML (A-Z) and PPP seem like worried about every new comers... All dirty tactics were used to defame Imran and Qadri but "Akhri time" is almost there...may be 5 yrs or 10 yrs most??

  • TMQ chief unveils charter of demands: Chaudhrys fail to change Qadri plan

    LAHORE: Despite an assurance by the federal government about acceptance of his demands, Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran chief Allama Dr Tahirul Qadri is adamant on going ahead with his planned long march on Islamabad.

  • This post is deleted!

  • Dissecting various conspiracy theories.....

    The perfect mess.

    QADRI is on his way to Islamabad and the conspiracy theorists are in overdrive.

    With facts scarcer than ever, there’s even a theory that he may not arrive in Islamabad tomorrow. The fundamental uncertainty of politics here means anything is possible.

    Just how possible? Let’s recap, in no particular order of believability or widespread-ness, the conspiracy theories about who put Qadri up to this long march business.

    Theory No 1: Zardari. The president wants to be re-elected as president. The electoral college — the provincial assemblies and parliament — is configured such at present that if the assemblies’ lives were somehow to be extended till the expiration of Zardari’s term in September, he’d be guaranteed re-election.

    A general election could substantially change the presidential-election math, though. But how to postpone the general election, when the PML-N is waiting in the wings and the PTI is determined to try its luck?

    The Qadri wildcard. Long-marching, slogan-chanting, game-changing Qadri appears out of nowhere and threatens political chaos — giving Zardari that elusive excuse to extend the life of parliament by means of some as-yet-unclear constitutional mechanism.

    Theory No 2: MQM. The party of urban Sindh is obsessed with protecting its base. But nestled as its base is in greater — interior — Sindh, the MQM has to use every trick in the book and then some to get its way.

    Tantrums, blackmail, threats, the MQM will do whatever it takes to ensure Karachi, and Hyderabad, remains under its control.

    Strip away the theatrics from Altaf’s Thursday speech and you’re left with the mention of local government elections and the Sindh governorship. Assume, and this is quite a safe assumption, there are more demands that will never be heard of in public.

    Demands that the MQM wants met, but how to get its senior coalition partner in Sindh and the centre, the PPP, to accede to those demands?

    Enter Qadri. With street power at his command and a message that is in lock-step with the army-led establishment’s, Qadri’s arrival was meant to create a threatening uncertainty — an uncertainty about the establishment’s real intentions; an uncertainty that was supercharged when the MQM climbed on the Qadri bandwagon.

    Give us what we want, the MQM appeared to be saying to the PPP, or we’ll help your enemies take you down. A credible threat because the MQM would not exactly struggle to find a place, or protect its interests, in the new dispensation.

    Theory No 3: Americans/Brits. Disillusioned by the incompetence and drift of the last five years, worried that the next election will produce another hung parliament and weak government, desperate to keep Pakistan stable as the Afghan adventure winds down — do they need more of an incentive to try and shape politics here again?

    Qadri’s international network, his ‘moderate’, Barelvi leanings, his diehard followers inside Pakistan, all of that makes him just the guy to jolt the political system, create the space for the democratic project to be paused and hand over the reins to a team of competents to guide the country out of the mess it is in.

    All of it backstopped by the army, just when its cooperation in Afghanistan over the next couple of years is needed most. Better for the Americans to satisfy the man who can deliver here, Gen K, than to back the civilians who control little.

    Theory No 4: Kayani. The power-grab theory by a power-hungry Gen K is straightforward enough. But there’s also a more exotic potential motive attributed to the general with a taste for the convoluted.

    The Americans know Gen K will ultimately stand in their way, so they’d liked to see the back of him come November. A craven and pliant civilian government would help the Americans insert an ambitious but malleable successor in Gen K’s place.

    That successor would then help the Americans achieve their dream of institutionally reshaping the army to better suit American interests in Pakistan and the region.

    Ergo, to prevent the Americans from destroying the army from within, Gen K has activated Qadri. Once the democratic process is on hold, Gen K can continue beyond 2013 and protect the institutional integrity and independence of the army.

    These wacky and weird theories have nothing in common, as befits most sets of conspiracy theories.

    They do, though, hint at an underlying reality, a reality that is vexing and can appear unwelcome because it is chaotic. But within that reality may lie the seeds of systemic resilience and durability.

    How is it possible for the same event — Qadri’s long march to get the elections postponed — to produce such wildly differing theories to cui bono, who benefits?

    If the Zardari-wants-to-get-re-elected-by-the-present-assemblies theory is right, then that means he has enough power to exert his will over all the other players in the game.

    If the Kayani-wants-to-prolong-his-reign-for-whatever-reason theory is correct, then that means he has enough power to exert his will over all the other players in the game.

    Both can’t simultaneously be correct, for Kayani and Zardari are both central players in the power game on the national stage.

    There’s a simpler explanation — and it also explains the existence of the contradictory conspiracy theories: no player has the ability to impose their will on all the other players. Nobody can get all that they want in the battle for control.

    Not Kayani. Not Zardari. Not Qadri. Not Sharif. Not CJ Iftikhar. Not the Americans. No one.

    It’s not elegant or easy to grasp, like a stalemate in a game of chess — which explains the frustration of everyone, including a bemused public.

    But this messy, noisy, ugly-looking draw that events and moves by the various players have helped engineer has one distinct advantage: it favours continuity.

    Shake it, rattle it, batter it, and yet it survives — allowing the country to inch closer to one thing it’s never had: a civilian-led transition.

    The old order may resent it, the public today may not appreciate it, but give the unwanted its due: let’s hail the perfect mess.