Sitting on the fence —Munir Attaullah

Making a decision — one way or another — is something we all live with everyday. That is never the difficult part. The tricky bit is what just precedes it: deciding whether, in the given case, we actually stand at that particular crossroad of inevitability that requires a firm choice to be madeReaders can be excused the groan when someone who should know better threatens to bore them with yet another column anchored in the lawyers’ movement. But that is the easy, default option these days, is it not?

So what prompts me to test the patience of readers and go to the well again today? It occurred to me that perhaps some of you may well think the opinions I have expressed here from time to time on the lawyers’ movement smack of ambivalence. Would a charge of ‘fence sitting’ be justified?

For, you might say, I seem to heartily support the broader cause espoused by the lawyers, though I don’t buy all their specific objectives; and, that I appear to have nothing but admiration for the courage and resilience they have shown in sustaining a historic movement, but have misgivings and reservations about the direction in which they seem headed.

Are there some inherent contradictions in such a stance?

As respite from the re-consideration of such familiar matters, I throw in something new that I have not been presumptuous enough to discuss before: some speculation on the trials and tribulations of Aitzaz Ahsan, as he has wrestled with the classic existential political dilemma the movement posed for him, and how he appears to have chosen to resolve it. The question is: is he too, in some way, sitting on the fence?

Hold it here! It will not surprise readers that before I begin to even think, let alone write, about these questions, I must digress to deal with a preliminary matter. For, that cliché about ‘sitting on the fence’ set the mind going — as usual — on an exploratory tangent.

For, the normal fence — be it of barbed wire or of a series of sharp upright stakes — cannot, as everyone can readily visualise, be a comfortable resting place for one’s bottom, or for the adoption of an easy, recumbent posture. Should we really be using such a facon de parler to describe a non-committal position?

Making a decision — one way or another — is something we all live with everyday. That is never the difficult part. The tricky bit is what just precedes it: deciding whether, in the given case, we actually stand at that particular crossroad of inevitability that requires a firm choice to be made.

And here, temperament is the key. At one end of the spectrum there is the all-action, gung-ho type, brimming over with confidence and ever ready to take the plunge: we label him ‘courageous’ or ‘reckless’ (usually, after the outcome of his decision is known to have met with success or failure). The other end is occupied by the psychologically ultra-timid type: always finding every possible justification to procrastinate and dither, so fearful is he of ‘doing the wrong thing’. In between these two extremes are all the shades of grey, epitomised by those who exhibit Hamlet-like behaviour in varying degrees. Is the thoughtful caution and prudent circumspection displayed by the last category deserving of that sneering and derisive cliché?

Moreover, there is a hidden presumption here that there is necessarily terra firma on either side of the fence. Is that always so? What if there is only treacherous quicksand on one side — or both — of the fence? And, should we not sympathise with, rather than deride, the fence sitter who has the courage to expose himself to pot-shots from both sides of the fence?

I raise all these questions not because I have any definitive answers — my derision is reserved for those who make such claims — but to make a simple enough point: the need to make clear-cut choices is often not an imperative; but, on those occasions when a choice must be made, in all but the simplest of cases, the existential dilemma that confronts each individual is unique to him in a certain sense, and depends more on his specific being, nature, and circumstance, less on some high moral principle.

That digression was not without intent or purpose. For, it provides the essential and convenient excuse to completely side-step the issue I initially planned to discuss (my culpability), and think instead about Aitzaz Ahsan. At worst, you will conclude thereby that I can afford the luxury of a ‘on the one hand this, but on the other hand that’ type stance because I have no particular stake in either outcome, and can therefore happily and easily make lofty theoretical comments from outside the combat arena. That may be so. But really, is it not far more interesting to think, instead, of Aitzaz? For, who can deny that the movement confronted him with the type of genuinely excruciating existential political dilemma I have been talking about?

Here is a multi-dimensional, thoroughly civilised, modern man, whose impressive accomplishments — professional, intellectual, and even political — do him and his country proud. But his intellectual ambitions are probably limited (the dilettante in him preventing the needed fierce and full-time commitment) and, professionally, he already has climbed the peaks (unless he would like to be the CJ — in which case I say, “Quick Watson, the needle, here is a novel way out of the mess for the authorities to consider!”). That leaves political ambitions. And those remain very much alive, as even the recent search for a ticket demonstrates.

But politics generally, and leadership specifically, is not a happy hunting ground for intellectuals hung up on integrity. Occasionally — like Dr Owen, Malraux, and Aitzaz himself — such people do reach ministerial rank, but in real life leadership is something else altogether, and requires a different brand of politics. I am sure Aitzaz understands this reality full well.

For reasons probably well known to him, his relations with his party high command have been, what you might euphemistically call, ‘strained’ if not ‘tense’, for some years now. The movement he heads gave him the chance to claw his way back on to the national political scene and, had he played his cards somewhat differently, to simultaneously rehabilitate himself within the party. As it is, the choice he ended up making is ostensibly to stay within the party but actually oppose its policy.

That is not the advice I would have given him — there is a real chance he will end up losing out on both fronts — but then who am I to be so presumptuous as to be offering gratuitous advice? As I said, in the final analysis, this is an existential problem that each individual has to solve alone.

A final outrageous thought: Aitzaz may have made the choice that realistically ends a political career — there cannot be one without party support — but anyone for Aitzaz as President, albeit of the constitutional kind?

The writer is a businessman

Source: Daily Times, 25/6/2008

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