The News: Our problem more tangled than we think - Article by Ayaz Amir

Ayaz Amir
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
From Print Edition

We moan about symptoms and peripheral things. We are still not getting to the heart of the matter. Dunces cannot be Salahuddin Ayubis. Traders and bank-loan specialists, nurtured in the bosom of military rule, cannot become nation-saviours.

Put any cream on them, any makeup, darbari journalists – and there is no shortage of that breed here – can sing their praises and invest them with imaginary qualities, but none of this will make the slightest difference. Dummies will remain dummies.

Pakistan can have not one democratic transition but a dozen but as long as the political process only throws up the characters we have known – Zardari, the present torch-bearers of enlightenment and progress, not to mention military saviours – not only will things remain the same, they will get worse.

We’ve seen this happening time and again. But we keep hoping for miracles. To state the obvious, and I have done it many times, with the old ingredients you can only get the old porridge…a lesson lost on the Pakistani political class and the great Pakistani awam.

So much has been written about the Sharif visit to Washington, and there’s little to add. But what exactly were we expecting? That our PM would arrive at the White House and floor Barack Obama with his eloquence? That his articulation of issues would be so profound and compelling that the American president would be reduced to admiring silence?

A third-time prime minister looking so ill at ease…twice sipping from the glass of water by his side, shuffling and looking nervously at the speaking notes he was clutching in his hands, Obama looking like an advanced professor and our PM a very baffled student. To complete the picture of awkwardness, our PM read from his notes. He had to give no lecture on philosophy, only utter the usual platitudes which are the standard fare on such occasions, but even this was proving difficult. And in the end he called Michelle Obama Mr Obama before hastily correcting himself (the video of this is worth watching).

But these people who can be such lords at home and get so hot under the collar in that setting are the guides we have chosen, of our own free will, to pilot our ship to the shores of progress and prosperity. Just shows the choices we have. However we shuffle our pack of cards, hoping for our luck to change, this is what we get: limited souls, a long succession of them. Whatever their other differences, the factor which unites them is the desperation to make the ritual pilgrimage to Washington.

There’s no point in going over their names and recounting their exploits. The point is that this is the leadership class we have and unless this changes little else will change. Taxing the rich and thus adding to the sum of national revenue, facing up to the Taliban threat, producing more energy and curbing line losses, reforming the state administration, all these require strong leadership. From where do we get this?

This is the mother of all challenges. Everything else comes afterwards. But if the only thing our political environment permits is the triumph of one set of freebooters after another, heroes and mahatmas who can only look out for themselves, how on earth do we begin fixing our affairs?

The Sharifs are very good at some things, like running their industrial and business empire. They need no tutorials on that. If they are out of their depth when it comes to other issues, that’s the package we settled for – or the choice Punjab made – in the last elections. And we are stuck with this package until the next turn of the political wheel. That’s the meaning of democracy. You make your choice and then live with it.

Lampooning Nawaz Sharif therefore, even if there is much to lampoon, solves nothing. Offering him gratuitous advice about how he should be doing this and that is pointless, because with his strengths and weaknesses he is what he is and will remain that way.

In Shakespeare’s Henry Fourth (Part 1 and 2) the young Prince Hal lives riotously in the immortal company of Sir John Falstaff: drinking, wenching and even playing at robbers. But when strife and wars engulf the kingdom he comes into his own, becoming a new man. Crowned king after the death of his father he banishes Falstaff from his sight.

Once upon a time Nawaz Sharif was Prince Hal to Gen Ziaul Haq, the promising young man groomed by that military regime to take on the mantle of anti-Bhuttoism. That was how the Sharif political saga began. And the family was smart enough to milk the state banking sector to expand their business empire. But that was then, 30 years ago, and now is the Taliban and a whole new world. And the tricks learnt then are proving inadequate for today’s challenges.

Not only in the Oval Office did Pakistan’s chief representative look out of his depth. He and the N-League look out of their depths at home. That’s why all the enthusiasm accompanying their third coming has disappeared, the sheen worn off. But there’s nothing strange in this. If the past was kept in mind, this was only to be expected. It’s another matter that people who should have known better are now wringing their hands in despair and discovering, often with a sense of wonder, the shortcomings of this dispensation. They are probably right but their concern comes a bit late in the day.

The time when the commentariat and the political class should have had their eyes open was in the run-up to the elections, when all that noise was being raised about the screening of candidates. I don’t know whether Allama Tahirul Qadri was acting on his own or he was launched by Gen Pasha or someone else. But the issue he raised – applying the correct constitutional standards to determine the eligibility of candidates – cut to the core of our then predicament.

If only the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, leaving everything else aside, had insisted on just two things – keeping confirmed loan defaulters out of the race and taking the Asghar Khan case to its logical conclusion – there would have been a political earthquake in Pakistan, opening the way for something unpredictable but at least something different from the emptiness around us today. As long as this barrenness of ideas lasts, we can neither beat the Taliban nor arrest the institutional collapse which is the leading feature of our state today.

But to hark back to that lost moment, something was missing from that puzzle: audacity. So everyone concerned settled for the safest option, the status quo, and the moment went by. The Sharifs represent the accumulated conservatism of the last 30 years, the conservatism so beloved of Punjab’s trading classes. The moment of danger passing, and the Zardari-led PPP having discredited itself, the N-League’s triumph was a foregone conclusion.

So there’s not much use for hand-wringing now. Nor much use in lamenting the way the country is being run, a tight family cabal in on key decisions. Given what we know of this political brand, it could only be this way and no other. So until nature runs its course, and the skies open and there emerges the possibility of something different, this is what we must endure.

Let’s just hope that in the meantime the roof keeps standing. Otherwise, when nature runs its course, there may not be that much left to save.