The return of the saviour

February 20,2019

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A wasteful tussle goes on between the PTI government and the two dynasties. Viewed in a larger context, it could also be considered a relapse of Pakistan’s saviour affliction that had hit the country for the first time in 1958. That is not to deny that the politicians who succeeded the first premier Liaquat Ali Khan had proved to be unequal to the daunting task of leading the young nation to a bright and secure future.

Granted that both the president and the army chief were over-ambitious people, focused on prolonging their tenures. As the general elections scheduled for 1959 neared, Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan concurred that the politicians around them were, in general, incompetent, parochial and corrupt. Hence, they decided to put the political leaders out of business before they returned to rule with a popular mandate.

Pakistan’s short history tells us that the saviour phases were short lived as the imperative of keeping power trumped other considerations. The self-styled saviours wanted to rule indefinitely and in the end they met their fate but not before causing grave damage to the institutions. Each saviour justified his intervention because the corrupt politicians were resurging to pursue their narrow agendas. Gen Musharraf vowed to rid the country of sham democracy and promised to run a real democracy without the country’s two popular leaders, Benazir and Nawaz. Two decades earlier, Gen Zia had ascended the throne to save the country from a dramatic situation caused by Bhutto’s plans to cut the opposition to size.

One more term each for the two major parties from 2008 to 2018 has led to a return of the saviour phenomenon but with a difference: that a civilian leader has come to power with the promise of ridding the country of corrupt rulers. Does Imran Khan stand a better chance of dismantling the two major political forces than his predecessors on horseback?

A short rewind to the earlier campaigns to clean up may be instructive about its future success. Musharraf had embarked, like Ayub and Zia before him, to rid the country of sham democracy, which according to them was only serving the politicians’ interests and dragging the country down. No surprise then that after sidelining the major party leaders like the earlier military rulers, Musharraf ended up co-opting their B teams. Some PPP and PML-N leaders were lured to join in a new party named PML-Q, which loyally served Musharraf until his power began to erode.

The PPP and the PML-N survived the purgatory and resurfaced with greater vigour as Musharraf failed to mobilise public support for his continued rule, despite having been reelected president for a five-year term in 2007. The NRO granted to the PPP leadership under Anglo-American pressure enabled Benazir to stage a triumphal comeback. Nawaz’ supporters – notably Saudi Arabia – prevailed upon Musharraf to allow Nawaz to return and resume his party’s leadership. The removal of the then chief justice and the agitation resulting from that turned Musharraf into a sitting duck.

The country, then, needed to be saved from Zardari as well as Nawaz – the corrupt and corrupting threat to the land. A new leader and a new party sprang up from Lahore. The twist was the idea of a civilian saviour. When given multiple reasons about the Kaptaan not being well prepared to take on the job, the disarming reply would be: the others have had their chance and proved failures; let us give him a chance. But it wasn’t like he could do without additional support through defections in the two older parties. Enter the saviour in shalwar qameez, cricketer turned social worker and champion of insaaf to the masses – and determined to bring down the self-serving political dynasties.

His ambitious agenda is not without its pitfalls. Countries cannot be run in the name of accountability. Overemphasis on retribution depresses business and scares away investors. Then where do we stand six months after the first civilian saviour took oath as the country’s chief executive? The leakage of public money has been reduced and serious efforts are being made about curbing gas and electricity theft. However, promises about recovering the ‘stolen billions’ remain unrealised. And yet the government’s top spokesperson has not mastered the art of playing ambivalence. He has lashed out at NAB for shoddy work because the accused are getting bail from the courts.

One can sympathise with the Kaptaan’s aim of carrying out a clean-up operation but his daily incantations about corruption are a bit overdone. It may sound alright to the prime minister when he endlessly lambasts the previous governments for heavily indebting the country. But does he not realise that the billions he has been lining up will have to be repaid as well? The verbal warfare does not make sense nor is it clicking with the common man.

The time may have arrived when the government should be seen governing rather than hectoring and pontificating. The older parties have been overtaken but not overcome. It is a field with three big players not unknown to the logic of power. Good governance may help where catcalls for quarrel fail to impress.



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