Agonies of the Fatherland


Agonies of the Fatherland |Ayaz Amir |22 July 2016

Islamabad diary

The first bugle has sounded, a faint one but it comes as expected, the nation’s permanent agitator, Imran Khan, announcing the start of agitation on the Panama leaks from August 7. With Ramazan gone, the hiatus is over and the political temperature is set to soar.

But what kind of support will Imran’s PTI garner? How much of public enthusiasm can he whip up? We don’t know.

This much though is clear. The PTI is very much on its own. The PPP has other problems on its plate and the Jamaat-e-Islami is playing a pantomime, with its heart not in any anti-government agitation. Its chief, Sirajul Haq, talks in terms of sweeping generalities, a nation-wide crackdown on corruption and nostrums like that. But on specifics the Jamaat will not be pinned down. The PTI is on its own. Hence the key question, how much steam in Lahore can it generate on its own?

Our mercurial and uncertain cleric, Allama Tahirul Qadri, has the street power, most certainly in Lahore, where if his party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, so chooses it can field a force of several thousands to march in the direction of that unlikely fortress being strengthened at public expense, Jati Umra. (If instead of Jati Umra the walls of Bilawal House were being buttressed at public expense there would have been no end to the media outrage. I suppose different standards are applied to Punjab-centred excess.)

Will the Allama pitch in? We don’t know. He’s keeping his own counsel. A lot will depend on how much heat Imran is able to generate. When momentum builds and a caravan starts going recruits and fellow-travellers join in. Still, the pressure is telling on the ruling party. Is it a coincidence or something else that the usual brass band of the Daniyal Azizs and Talal Chaudhrys has gone relatively quiet? Is this on instruction or a sign of plummeting morale?

It’s not just the prime minister who’s been ill and whose ‘recuperation’ is taking forever. The entire government looks sick as if functioning on a life-support system. Who’s been running the show in Islamabad? One solitary, overweight bureaucrat and the PM’s daughter, and even they seem focused more on atmospherics and media management than anything substantive.

So no wonder if Islamabad gives the impression of marking time, waiting for deliverance, waiting for this crisis to somehow resolve itself. Wherever you go the one question asked is, what is going to happen? Questions many but very few answers.

Indeed, the political class and the commentariat are living not in the present but in the unfolding future, everyone’s favourite line being that something is bound to happen in August. Even astrologers have pitched in and their services are much in demand. According to them the configuration of the stars suggests that August is crucial. In an irrational environment, and when civilisations decline, numerology becomes the reigning science.

My guess and it’s just that is that even the army high command is not really clear about what it wants. Its dissatisfaction with the present arrangement is pretty clear. But what does it want? What is it gunning or playing for? Again, there are conjectures galore, theories being floated – adding to the uncertainty – but no clear answers.

The extension argument was seemingly clinched when the army chief declared in January that he was not interested in staying beyond his term. But even that seems not all that settled now. Such are the vagaries of the Pakistani situation where even seeming certainties soon fall apart.

For what one man’s opinion is worth, I personally think any kind of extension would be disastrous for Gen Raheel. Because of Fata, Karachi and other things he has won himself standing and reputation and all of it will go down the drain if, emulating Gen Kayani’s example, he settles for an extension. The N-League’s brass band will have a field day ridiculing him.

Let’s not forget, there must be generals mentally lining up to take his place. Such is the reality of power. Which death of a Mughal emperor was not followed by a war of succession? Sons revolting against their fathers, brothers pitted against brothers. Power brooks no rivals or competitors, and everyone is for himself. Gen Raheel stands tall today but come the end of August and the race for the succession – at least in the minds of the generals concerned – will have begun.

It’s an ugly scene whichever way we look at it and it doesn’t help that the Sharifs’ grip on power – even if on the civilian half of power – has weakened. Nawaz Sharif is sticking, and desperately at that, to the shadow of power. The substance of it – and we need not go into the reasons here – has slipped away from him. And the knives are out and the wheels of agitation are being oiled and no one knows – not even the astrologers if you question them closely – what is happening, or is likely to happen.

The constitution – that sorely-tested document – is there, the assemblies are in place, the courts are functioning but uncertainty fills what there is of the national mind. All because time, the remorseless march of time, is finally catching up with Nawaz Sharif, the longest survivor in Pakistani politics, and exposing his many inadequacies.

He was a product of a different era when the army needed a political face – an acceptable face from Punjab – against the Bhuttos. Those battles are long over. Now left on his own, the ‘establishment’ looking at him through suspicious eyes, Nawaz Sharif is suffering from the cruelty of exposure, his many inadequacies being revealed one by one. The Panama leaks have merely added to this basic predicament.

Most irrelevant of all in this evolving drama are the MNAs of the ruling party. Poor souls, are they told anything? Does anyone bother to consult them? They have no voice because groomed in the great school of political obedience they choose to have no voice. They strut about in their constituencies – and I should know for I was one of them – but in the corridors of Islamabad they count for less than shadows. Such is the truth of our parliamentary democracy.

I don’t think a coup is being planned. The army lacks the nerve – and a good thing that it does. I don’t think a Field Marshal el-Sisi initiative as in Egypt after Morsi’s overthrow is on the cards. The army lacks the political imagination for that – and again perhaps a good thing that this is so. But at least the army has something going for it…it has won laurels in the fight against terrorism and that’s not a small thing. The politicians are clueless and directionless. And the PML-N is a tired party, bereft of anything resembling fresh ideas.

Is there anyone in this motley crowd – civilian and military – who has a vision to sell, a compelling vision that appeals to the raw emotions of the Pakistani nation? That is the dispiriting thing…the Sahara desert of our imagination.

Yesterday in this paper there was this gem from the Khadim-e-Aala: “Standing there in the suffocating heat, I realised…that we had to refocus our health system on one single focal point: patient care.” This revelation strikes him after three decades in power. What were they previously focusing on, the stars? This is the intellectual baggage he carries and he is itching to succeed his visionary brother. The heavens preserve us.