Guns of August…less bang than supposed

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The Panama phase in the high politics of our perennially-charged country is over. This much is evident from the start of the twin agitations launched by the two political entities which can claim some semblance of street power: Imran Khan’s sorely-tested PTI, subject as it is to his mood upswings, and the one and only Sheikh-ul-Islam’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek. They brought out what crowds they could muster but nothing in their initial offering carries the promise of an earthquake.

August would bring upheaval, said astrologers and pundits itching for some disorder under the heavens – on the grounds that any disorder is better than the wretched status quo which seems to be Pakistan’s destiny as reflected in its stars. But the only thing we are seeing is tepid movement – tokenism rather than anything profound or earthshaking. The agitating protagonists are exhausted. They still haven’t fully recovered from the dharnas – the sit-ins – of August, 2014, which were needlessly drawn out and put the fortitude and endurance of their followers to a great test.

Good commanders should know when to call a halt and when to withdraw. Imran’s was a dancing and singing crowd which would enjoy the evening fun and then repair to the comfort of their homes. But Qadri’s followers, including womenfolk, for weeks on end lay encamped in Parliament square. For them it was a gruelling ordeal.

The whole dharnas were planned on the assumption that once the ground was prepared there would be a ‘third-party’ intervention, and we all know what that means. By Aug 30-31 there was no semblance of a government in Islamabad. The police had tried force against the encamped protesters but had been beaten back, mainly by Qadri’s followers. The prime minister had left Islamabad for his Camp David, Jati Umra. The ruling party was expecting the worst. A few lorry-loads from 111 Brigade, nothing more, had to move in and it would all have been over.

But nothing of the sort happened. Nawaz Sharif’s government was badly shaken but it remained in place. A joint session of parliament was called where the assembled paladins thundered about the defence of democracy. The myth was later propagated, not least by the speech-makers, that those speeches saved democracy. In reality the army, for reasons of its own, had stayed its hand.

Once it was clear that there was to be no night or afternoon of the generals, Imran and Qadri should have had the sense to call off their agitation. After all, the foundations of their agitation had been swept away. Instead, God knows on whose instructions or on the strength of what conviction, they kept dragging it on, Imran giving rambling speeches on his container and Qadri delivering long speeches on corruption and the country’s socio-economic setup.

They said they were spreading awareness. In truth they were sowing the seeds of fatigue and frustration, the effects of which can be seen now, two years later. The same enthusiasm is just not being generated. And the media which always wades in when there is excitement to be gathered is also a bit bored. When you try out the same script over and over again, interest is bound to dampen.

So this is another moment of self-congratulation for the ruling setup. The Panama leaks when they came hit the ruling clan hard. The revelations after all were damaging – offshore accounts and Mayfair properties. It was common knowledge these things existed, that the Sharifs were no innocents when it came to money-making, but here it was all in black-and-white and coming from unimpeachable sources, not some cloak-and-dagger undercover agency. It was profoundly embarrassing and it showed.

Even someone as dependably see-no-evil and speak-no-evil as his Excellency the President felt inspired enough to opine that the Panama leaks had come from the heavens, a giveaway remark for which, it is almost certain, he must have tendered profuse explanations later. But such was the prevailing climate that even Begum Tina Shahbaz Sharif could not refrain from saying that the leaks were a message from above and that the Sharifs should learn to lead simple lives and bring back their wealth from abroad.

Considered always an outsider in the family, we can well imagine how her remarks would have been taken. But now it is all quiet on those fronts – no more assertions about heavenly or divine messages. Better sense has come to prevail.

Only because the Panama trail has gone cold. The worst is over for the ruling coterie. And the opposition parties, if only they were to realise it soon enough, are beating a dead horse when they talk of terms of reference and judicial commissions.

The government was never about to set up a commission that would end up incriminating it. This should have been clear from day one. The Sharifs haven’t survived and prospered in politics for the last 35 years to agree to something now that would throw a noose round their own necks. So they ducked and evaded and played for time. And the heat has gone out of the whole issue. Alhamdolillah, as both Hasan and Hussain Nawaz would piously intone.

Look at what’s happening in Malaysia. Prime Minister Najib Razaq is accused of having 681 million dollars in his personal account which the Saudis, coming to his rescue, say was a gift from a Saudi individual. Could any leader in a Western democracy have survived such a gift if it became public knowledge? But Razaq, his sang-froid to be admired, soldiers on and even looks set to win the next election. Educated in England, his manners are said to be impeccably English, unflappable and stiff upper lip and all that. High-flying crooks could take a lesson from him.

We’ve seen the same thing in Turkey: grave corruption allegations against the ruling party but President Erdogan going on the offensive, crushing all opposition. What makes us think the Sharifs are naïve and would willingly put their heads on the block? They are no one’s idiots.

But the Panama leaks remain a worrying slogan. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto raised the bogey of a betrayal at Tashkent after the 1965 war, no commission was ever set up but Bhutto used Tashkent to beat the Ayub regime. He kept at it until the 1970 elections. Then Tashkent was put away in a cupboard and the key thrown away.

The only way for the Panama leaks to have become an existential crisis for the stuffed lions of Jati Umra was if people had come on the roads. But the awam have other things to worry about, and the twin agitations we are seeing have got off to a tame start.

Let’s not forget the ruling clan has strong digestive capabilities. Its stalwarts digested long ago something that would have brought down any PPP government: the Asghar Khan case. Corruption allegations over the years have been like Teflon, never to stick to their coats. Now they are getting over the Panama leaks.

True, the Model Town affair is different…it is still sticking in their throats. But imagine if a PPP government had carried out those killings. We would have been baying for its blood and it would have been thrown out in no time, and PPP leaders would have been facing criminal charges. Punjab I suppose confers immunity on its shield-bearers.

As the government counts its blessings the opposition, the most lack-lustre in Pakistan’s turbulent history, should be rethinking its options.