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Ayaz Amir
Friday, April 19, 2013
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Islamabad diary

As a bag-carrier of the N or Nawaz League, a role forced upon me by Chakwal necessity, I experienced in full measure three things: mediocrity, self-righteousness (amazing amounts of it) and a level of sycophancy on the part of senior N leaders enough to drive anyone out of his mind.

But I was caught in a web. I had left the N in 1998, having resigned from the Punjab Assembly, realising that by entering electoral politics I had messed up my journalism. Ruining journalism for politics – not a happy exchange. But the Musharraf coup and local Chakwal politics drove me into the N’s arms again.

Everyone who mattered in Chakwal – the district nazim, Majeed Malik, N’s former federal minister – had all joined Musharraf’s party leaving the opposite side barren and empty. To preserve some kind of balance locally I contested Musharraf’s 2002 elections on an N ticket – and how delighted they were that I was offering myself for sacrifice when the N ticket was anything but a prized commodity – and got a respectable 70,000 to the winner’s 71,500.

And perhaps even this would have been different if ISI officers, ultimate arbiters in that particular exercise of the ballot, had not sat behind the returning officers.

And my columns used to be read with such delight in Jeddah where the bewildered paladins of the ‘heavy mandate’ were living out their time in self-chosen exile – this the result of a Saudi and Hariri-mediated deal, whereby the Sharifs washed their hands of national politics for ten years in return for generous Saudi hospitality.

It is another matter that the Sharifs, never ones to proclaim inconvenient truths, kept denying this deal until Prince Muqrin, the Saudi intelligence chief, had to come to Islamabad and (unprecedentedly) address a press conference where he waved the paper with the deal on it. For anyone else this would have been a knock-out blow. Not for our champions who promptly came back with the rejoinder that the deal was only for five years, not ten, a declaration of innocence which left most observers flabbergasted.

Then came the 2008 elections and I led the pack in Chakwal, except for one constituency virtually deciding which ticket should go to whom. As for myself, I got 125,437 votes, the highest in Punjab.

But that was then and this is now, and this time – to my infinite relief, you’ll have to believe this – the ticket has not been given to me... because my journalism did not go down well with the party mandarins, and my face, nothing much to begin with, they had begun to dislike. I knew that parting time had come but hung on, not wishing to reinforce the impression among my constituents that I was a regular ‘resignation’ man.

But whatever the reason you will have to believe me when I say, what a relief, almost like getting out of a tight pair of clothes that one has worn for too long. I had enough sense not to turn my column into a party propaganda column, and thank God for that. But while I took jabs at the leadership I was not completely my own man, party affiliation, whether I liked it or not, holding me back and inhibiting my style.

I lampooned, among other things, Nawaz Sharif’s stand on Memogate, considering him to be out of his depth and not understanding the shaping of that particular episode. But I could not say what I thought needed to be said regarding the Asghar Khan judgement by the Supreme Court. Here was an open-and-shut case where a long line of politicians headed by Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif were caught with their pants down receiving ISI money, from ISI officers, in the 1990 elections. But no follow-up action, no prosecution, no accountability – the culprits behaving as if they had been washed in holy water.

Imagine if the Asghar Khan case was about the PPP, and not the N League. All hell would have broken loose, the declamations we would have heard, the fire and thunder from the courts, the self-righteous grandstanding. Pervaiz Ashraf, the former prime minister, is disqualified on the basis of a CDA transaction, but the Asghar Khan culprits wear suits of Teflon...nothing has stuck to them.

And although I kept writing about the moon and the stars, Ghalib and Saigal, holy fathers and holy water, about the naked double standards on display in this case – stentorian verdict pronounced but no action afterwards – I said nothing, party affiliation keeping me mum, ridicule locked up in my heart and there causing internal damage.

There was more hilarity on parade. Bank defaulters, we were told, would be out of the elections. It is hard to think of any fat cat losing sleep over this. The Chaudhrys have been great ones for having their loans written off, everything in order on paper. But the Sharifs went one step further, not going to the trouble of getting anything written off and instead simply refusing to pay anything on the near-three-billion rupee loan taken by them from the National Bank and eight other banks in the 1990s.

All this was ‘regularised’ when Nawaz Sharif became prime minister in 1997 and he went on television and proudly declared that his family was clearing the loans by offering assets in lieu of them. Sharif suggested that this was an act of unrivalled sacrifice.

That the collateral offered was in the form of their most rundown assets is beside the point. The echoes of that announcement had hardly died down when a Sharif relative went to court saying he was a shareholder in the properties offered and that Sharif had no right to dispose them off. This matter is pending in the Lahore High Court, Allah be praised, for the last 15 years. The defaulters concerned are of course preparing to save the nation once more, as they announce the imminent birth of a new dawn.

Zardari was always Zardari, never pretending to be anything else. The Sharifs were who they were but through an optical illusion with few parallels in the nation’s history we were also expected to take them as sole claimants to that hallowed space called the moral high ground. Loan artists of a kind seldom witnessed before in the annals of Pakistani banking, at the same time high priests of morality: not an easy stunt to pull off.

I was critical but off and on and with my pistols half-cocked, enduring in smouldering silence the speeches of my colleague Chaudhry Nisar Ali who excelled at going on and on, at times for two hours on end, convinced he was Cicero when he was boring everyone to death. For errant politicians in need of a lesson few punishments can be more effective than having to listen to his speeches. They will soon be on their knees, begging for mercy.

The PPP has been a disaster thrice-over, not counting Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s stint in office. The N League has been an equal disaster, the recent performance of Punjab’s little Hitler, Shahbaz Sharif, looking good only when compared to the PPP. Although on a dispassionate scale what he has to show for himself does not go beyond a line of expensive and directionless gimmicks: sasti roti, laptops, Daanish schools, etc. So there’s not much to choose from here.

Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. From stale porridge we have tried before, we are expecting something new. There’s no easy cure for such a malady.

Tailpiece: Musharraf’s judicial hounding: in his position one gets what one deserves. But I wish our memories were not so selective. Everyone remembers, and waxes heroic about, November 3, 2007, completely ignoring October 12, 1999, when Musharraf and his generals committed their original sin. Is it because it suits us to forget some uncomfortable truths? The then judiciary, which includes present-day eminences, validated his coup not once but twice and there was no shortage of judges who took oath under Musharraf’s PCO. Shouldn’t this inculcate in everyone concerned a touch of humility?

Email: winlust@yahoo.com