Sep 102008

I APOLOGISE. I lied. I don’t believe it’s a question of if but when and who will stick the knife in whom first. Asif and Nawaz will not be able to make this arrangement last five years. I don’t know when and I don’t know how but I do know it won’t work.

If it does, I’ll buy Nawaz and Asif the finest meal I can afford. I say this even though I probably cannot afford anything to satisfy either’s tastes. That’s how sure I am that this will not work.

What will happen when this latest exercise in democracy comes crashing down? Your guess is as good as mine. For all I know a Paul Bremer-type proconsul will soon be stamping through the ruins of a bombed-out presidency. We could see a new King’s party — a PML-US or PML-A — with the Mushahid Hussains of the country swearing to stick by their democratic party to the bitter end, or at least until a better offer comes along. At least an American invasion would sort out that business about ownership of the war on terror: the US owns Pakistan; the US owns war on terror; Pakistan owns war on terror. QED.

What has brought on this doom and gloom? I blame TV. I was doing fine, chewing over the various permutations and combinations and the potential pitfalls of the transition to democracy. If Asif does A and Nawaz does B, X will happen. But if Asif does B and Nawaz A, Y will happen. So on and so forth, all charted out, factoring in the unfactorable. Then, the mistake. I tuned in to the TV coverage of the presidential election.

There they were, the otherwise sneering, cynical talking heads of Pakistan bloviating about the momentousness of the day that was unfolding. They intoned gravely about the multiple crises that afflict the state. You know them by rote by now: tanking economy; rampaging militants; unrestored judges; mangled constitution; omnipotent president. The talking heads asked and answered rhetorical questions. Was Asif up to the challenges? He had handled the transition well so far but then he had also hung the judges out to dry. Was Asif experienced enough? He is BB’s widower and was a political prisoner for many a year; then again, he has no experience leading anything other than an army of lawyers defending him in courts the world over.

What those talking heads — every last pundit, every last anchor, every last false prophet of hope — really wanted to do was grab the camera and shake it and scream: the whole thing is about to go to pieces. Can’t you think, you country of bleating sheep? That and wanting to smack silly all the jiyalas crowing about democracy and revenge. But the swaggering conquerors of Musharraf remained cautious — and hopeful. That’s when I knew I had to tear up my script and call it as my gut tells me. Read no further if you expect erudition.

Pakistani politics has much in common with one of the stranger thought exercises I have come across. As a student of law grappling with the seemingly innocuous question ‘what is law?’ I was asked to imagine that an alien descends from the heavens above and exits his space capsule next to a traffic signal. By observation alone the alien will be able to deduce the rules of traffic: stop when red; slow down or get ready to go when amber; go when green. But what the alien will never be able to figure out is the reason that people stop stop, day or night, traffic or no traffic. The alien observer is an outsider to the system of rules, so while he can discern a pattern he isn’t able to understand the reason people follow it.

This being Oxford the state of Pakistan’s roads was never really considered. If that poor alien landed besides a traffic signal in Pakistan, he would scarcely be able to avoid being run over — let alone figure out the rules of traffic. That’s Pakistani politics: no rules and plenty dangerous for anyone trying to discern any.

At one level, everything from March 9 last year to date is part of a recurring tumultuous process of transition from authoritarian rule to a more democratically elected form of government. We’ve seen it at least twice before. On every other level, the events of the last year and a half are, to put it mildly, unprecedented. President Zardari is simply the latest confounding, mind-scrambling event in a period of intense turmoil. Driving the motorcar of transition now is Asif, with Nawaz a potentially dangerous backseat driver. Will they stop at the red light or run through it? Or will they careen out of control and crash into that silly little alien wondering what’s going on?

History suggests that the presidency is a poisoned chalice — at the very least you leave without dignity. There is only one president who emerged from the presidency more powerful than he went in: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He of course became prime minister under the freshly minted 1973 Constitution, the same one Asif has vowed to bring back. Could Asif, who was living in the annexe of the prime minister’s house until this week, be planning an eventual move into the main residence? Nothing is impossible anymore — but Asif emulating ZAB? That’s the problem for me — and Asif, I suppose.

For Asif to come good, he will need to do something so stupendous, so unbelievable, so staggering as to put every other leader of this country in the shade. And Nawaz the Pious? So wounded and principled is he that I’m almost inclined to believe him. Until you realise that if true he’s a rubbish politician. If you don’t want power there’s always someone else who does, usually someone inside your party. When you take a greyhound to the races, expect it to tear after the rabbit. Whatever thoroughbreds there are in the League, their instincts are to relentlessly pursue power. Stand in their way long enough and they will devour you. 2013 will mark the fourteenth year of the N-League being out of power in Islamabad. Nawaz would be mad to try and keep the Leaguers on a leash until then. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has accused Nawaz of being mad.

Five years is a lifetime in politics anywhere. In Pakistan, it’s an eternity. There’s no way Asif and Nawaz will make this last.

Source: Daily Dawn, 10/9/2008

 Posted by at 6:47 pm

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