Beware the idea of a march By Arifa Noor


WHEN Amitabh Bachchan ruled the roost in Bollywood (and South Asian cinema audiences everywhere), it was hard to distinguish one film of his from another, so similar were the storylines. He always played the angry young man who took on many avatars but mostly rather similar. Either born poor or robbed of his fortune (if birthed by rich parents), he was usually the outsider who had to claim his rightful status and fortune from an unfair society. The bloodshot eyes, the baritone and the hairstyle didn’t vary though the clothes occasionally did. The major changes were provided by the music as well as the actors who played the villain and the love interest (and occasionally the best friend or sidekick).

In those populist times, the story of the angry young man worked — and when something works, no one wanted to take a risk by changing the plot too much. Pakistani politics also follows a similar principle — never tamper with a successful script.

And this successful script is followed faithfully by all involved. Hence, once an election has happened, political parties cry themselves hoarse over rigging but are quick to take oath. However, a year or two later, the aggrieved political parties take to the streets in a bid to dislodge the government, eventually ending in a long march to Islamabad.

Indeed, the long march was a staple of the political script in the 1990s as well as in the post-2008 period. In the 1990s, however, this plot twist meant the end was near; the establishment had made up its mind and the government’s days were numbered. But since 2008, the script has evolved a bit (what in Bollywood lingo is called zara hat ke) and now the government survives the march, but is shaken and bruised.

In 2020, the script is following its usual twists and turns.

Secondly, this long march plot twist is used twice; each government is now subjected to two onslaughts. The PPP averted the first one in 2009 by agreeing to restore the judges and Nawaz Sharif turned back midway but then Tahirul Qadri decided to descend on Islamabad, leading to yet another bout of uncertainty. Thankfully it didn’t last long, because Qadri himself was not a serious political player.

The PML-N too had its share of march anxieties. In 2014, Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri turned up in full force and tried hard to send the government packing.

Read: Imran threatens to storm PM House unless Nawaz steps down

The uncertainty was greater — partly because unlike 2009, there was no quick decision that could have defused and dispersed the protesters. It was a long and painful sit-in, instead. And then the PML-N faced its second angry bunch when the TLP descended on the city; if there was more uncertainty than 2013 it was partly due to the numbers, mood and identity of the protesters and also to the increasing friction between the then civilian government and the military.

(It is also worth considering if at least one march to Islamabad against a government will always be led by the mullah brigade. Is this just a happy coincidence or scripted?)

And because of the post-2008 scripts, when last year the disgruntled maulana marched to Islamabad, many wondered if he was doing so at the behest of the establishment. For who else would ever risk such a move, unless told to do so by those who really pull the strings? Till he finally turned back, the rumours persisted.

But there is more to a film than a script. Unfortunately, all our actors are also what are known as director’s actors, without much initiative or innovation of their own. Perhaps this is why every government precipitates the crisis which provokes the march. As Shakespeare observed, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves….”

And no one or no party is spared this tragic flaw. The PPP had more than one chance to defuse the 2009 march; by restoring the judiciary as promised but it preferred to ignore the commitments it had made. It then later added to the opposition’s numbers and anger by declaring governor’s rule in Punjab. Five years later, the PML-N also ignored the PTI’s growing cries about the chaar halqas; by the time Nawaz Sharif made the offer to address the PTI’s concerns, the die had been cast and Imran Khan was already convinced that his march on Islamabad, followed by a dharna and his party’s resignations from parliament, would send the Noonies packing.

This time around, six years after the PTI’s march, Khan is riding his accountability high horse and is convinced of his indispensability and righteousness. So he refuses to engage with the opposition and defuse the situation, even though so far, the opposition is only warming up by holding jalsas in major cities and there is merely vague talk of a march to Islamabad.

At the same time, it should be said that the second march in both the PPP’s and the PML-N’s tenure were not ones that could have been stopped by taking timely action. It was never really clear why Tahirul Qadri decided on that 2013 adventure, and the hysteria whipped up by the change in the oath was more orchestrated than not, giving the TLP reason to head to Islamabad. It’s hard to imagine what the PML-N could have done to head the TLP off.

In 2020, the script is following its usual twists and turns, even if the PTI government never tires of boasting of ‘one page’. But even this zara hat ke element of the script does not allow much changes to the basic storyline.

More importantly, what hasn’t changed is the fragility of the order and the government on Constitution Avenue — from 2008 onwards, protests and long marches have not and will not strengthen the democratic system. Instead, they illustrate its weaknesses. The constant uncertainty about the tenure and survival of the government, any government, is the plot line that needs to be discarded. It’s been done to death like the angry young man theme.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2020