Feisal Naqvi

The Bold and the Beyghairat

In Uncategorized on January 6, 2012 at 11:10 am

Who says live entertainment is dead in Pakistan? Turn on the TV and you can watch non-stop all-day episodes of the world’s biggest soap opera.

Like all the best soap operas, Pakistani politics mixes multiple storylines, high drama with low farce and shady escapades with death-defying heroics.

One story arc tracks the continuing rise of Imran Khan, now freshly empowered by the anti-establishment credentials of Javed Hashmi and the success of the Karachi jalsa (which, in turn, was enlivened by the best supporting actor performance of Shah Mehmood Qureshi).

Another storyline follows the freestyle wrestling match between the PPP and the army. In the red corner, we have the lumbering spirit of Andre the Giant as represented by the military. In the blue corner, we have the jiyalas doing their best impression of Rey Mysterio, the pint-sized masked luchador from Mexico known for his high-flying moves off the top-rope.

Like all wrestling matches, the referee, too, is part of the storyline.Enter therefore the Supreme Court, trying grimly to preserve its neutrality while also ensuring that the match follows the standard wrestling rules (no gouging, no spitting, no low blows) while each of the protagonists tries wholeheartedly to ‘accidentally’ knee the other in the unmentionables.

In the low farce category, we have a glut of noteworthy performances;Exhibit A being the tearful (and subsequently rejected) resignation on live television of the information minister, allegedly because of interference in her official duties. But while Apa Firdous may get the Oscar, honourable mention goes to the ‘shock and awe’ style assault on Nawaz Sharif’s birthday cake by the rank and file of the PML-N, followed shortly thereafter by the antics of the souvenir-minded PTI supporters who decided that their attendance at the meeting commemorating the entry of Khurshid Kasuri into the ranks of Imran Khan supporters entitled them to take home as many plastic chairs as they could carry away.

At this point in the column, I can just about sense the older, grumpier readers nodding their heads sagely and murmuring how the country is going to hell. Well, call me a contrarian but I think there is room for hope in this storyline too.

To begin with, there is nothing new about us going to hell. In fact, so far as I can remember, we’ve always been going to hell. To steal the words of Andy Rooney, “It’s just amazing how long this country’s been going to hell without ever actually having gotten there”.

On a more substantive note, I think the grumps are missing the forest for the trees: there is real substantive change happening in Pakistan.

For the past 60 plus years, we have been locked in a cycle of political despair where incompetent civilian governments have repeatedly wasted the opportunities provided to them and instead continually revalidated the army’s central thesis that the civilians cannot be trusted to exercise power in a responsible manner.

You may ask what is different this time? After all, neither the PPP nor the PML-N has done much over the past four years to change anybody’s mind.

True enough, I concede. However, what is different this time is that the incompetence of the current ruling parties is likely to be punished not through popular acceptance of a coup but through the emergence of an alternate political party.

Before I explain why this is a big deal, please note that I am by no means convinced that Imran Khan and his cohorts can even get into power, let alone wipe out corruption in 90 days, fix Balochistan and part the Red Sea. As @karachikhatmal wittily remarked on Twitter, “There are more unrealistic expectations being placed on Imran Khan than on a new bahu on a Star Plus soap”.

To return to my point, it is a great big deal that the Pakistani public has decided to hold its nose and put up with the shenanigans of the ruling families till such time that they get the satisfaction of voting them out. It is a great big deal because we have never had a situation in Pakistan (at least since 1958) where one democratically elected government has succeeded another (and no, I don’t count 2008).

What this succession would do — assuming it is allowed to happen — is that it would establish the principle of accountability in a far more powerful manner than all the rhetoric about ehtesab. At the end of the day, what politicians fear is not so much the thought of dealing with corruption charges but the thought of becoming irrelevant. It is this fear which is driving the lemming-like rush towards the PTI, as hordes of once nicely situated notables find that their carefully planned investments of social capital in Party A or Party B have gone up in smoke like so many dot.com stocks.

To take another analogy, the abiding image of WW I is of two grimly determined enemies endlessly grinding and gassing each other into the mud of Flanders; a world aptly described by Siegfried Sassoon as “the hell where youth and laughter go”.

The stalemate produced by trench warfare was ultimately broken by a number of factors, including the use of tanks at the battle of Cambrai in 1917. What was once a static war of attrition suddenly became an open field contest in which speed and manoeuvre were restored as battlefield virtues.

What we are seeing in Pakistan is — I hope — the equivalent of that development. We are shifting from a war of attrition between two set political parties into a war of movement between multiple different parties, a war in which the same old tropes will no longer suffice. Again, I don’t know who will win the battle. But what counts is that the terms of the fight are changing.

This is my last column of the year and I would like to end it with a tip of the hat to Sheherbano Taseer for the lovely sentiment she displayed in a recent interview. “People call Pakistan dangerous,” she said. “But I don’t care. It’s beautiful and it’s mine”.

Good luck, young lady, and may your family find more happiness in this year than it has found in 2011.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2011.

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