Do the bells toll?

July 05, 2020

We see the clouds gathering on the horizon, even literally as the monsoons arrive. This week’s events have whetted our sense of foreboding. Like the concluding ‘chase’ sequence of...

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We see the clouds gathering on the horizon, even literally as the monsoons arrive. This week’s events have whetted our sense of foreboding. Like the concluding ‘chase’ sequence of the movie, it is a decisive moment of high intensity that may lead to a decisive turning point in the plot.

I feel overwhelmed by the numerous strands that have to be drawn together to underline the tension and the drama of the unfolding situation. Somehow, the pandemic seems to have invoked the unravelling of some old secrets and hidden truths. This, then, is a season of revelations. Mysteries are taking birth and are being resolved.

So, where do I begin? My intention, actually, is to try to describe the overall environment of the rising political temperature against the flaming backdrop of popular disillusionment with the prevailing state of affairs. People, generally, are in an acute state of distress. Lockdowns, smart or not, have left a massive trail of misery and there is unbearable ambiguity about where we are headed in the near future.

But I have an excuse to go back to more than forty years ago because this column is to be published on a date that has a bearing on all subsequent political developments in this country. It was on July 5, 1977, when Gen Ziaul Haq staged his coup against the then prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It was surely a turning point in our history.

Gen Zia’s betrayal was the beginning of a long night of military rule that planted the seed of religious extremism in Pakistan and decisively changed the national sense of direction of this country, eventually making it possible for the present prime minister to bless the most wanted terrorist of the world as a ‘shaheed’.

We have to now contend with Imran Khan’s wanderings in an ideological wilderness. However, there should be no confusion about his performance as the chief executive. His failure in almost all manifestations of governance has prompted one of the major crises of this time.

In the wake of Fawad Chaudhry’s acknowledgement that the PTI had serious groupings within the party and the prime minister was given about six months to put his act together, Imran Khan has sought to strengthen his position and, in the process, exposed his own vulnerability.

On Tuesday, in a speech in the National Assembly, he dismissed the talk about a ‘minus one’ formula. That he himself was the one to mention the idea of ‘minus one’ should be of interest to a psychoanalyst. At the same time, however, he has been suggesting that he is indispensable. There is no other choice, he said. In his speech, he vowed to go after ‘mafias and cartels’ and announced that his government would now embark upon a plan of major institutional reforms.

This was an interesting speech. It had some hints of an inaugural address. And it also touched the boundary of a valedictory speech. He warned the opposition that even if ‘minus one’ happens, the others will not spare them. He advised young parliamentarians to not be scared of “leaving the chair”, since no one remains in power for ever.

Though the federal budget has sailed through the National Assembly, the ruling coalition still appears to be under pressure. As if it is being watched closely and Imran Khan is seen to be striving to improve the government’s performance. Meanwhile, the opposition has raised its tempo, insisting that Imran Khan’s hold on power is very precarious.

Tempers are beginning to fray. They are all losing their cool, including panelists in television talk shows. Politicians are behaving like children with a temper tantrum. Even unflappable Naved Qamar of the PPP was so provoked that he was ready for a fist fight in the National Assembly.

I will not go into the week’s headlines, including about the problems that PIA is confronting after official revelations that about one third of our pilots had fake or suspicious licences. And we were once the ‘great people to fly with’. Every day, we have one or two issues that are demoralising for all of us, such as sexual harassment of girl students in a prestigious institution.

But some reports have grave political implications. For instance, on Friday an administrative committee headed by the chief justice of the Lahore High Court ordered the dismissal of accountability court judge Arshad Malik. If you remember, there was a leaked video showing his confession that he had been pressurised and blackmailed to convict former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the Al-Azizia corruption reference.

Expectedly, Shahbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz said that this dismissal “proved” the innocence of the former prime minister. In any case, this development has raised the morale of the PML-N.

Meanwhile, a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice (r) Ijaz Ahmad Chaudhry has said in his VOA interview that the verdict in the Panama Papers case against Nawaz Sharif will always be remembered as controversial, like the trial of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He also narrated an incident of interference in the process of appointment of judges.

If you find any of this a bit shocking, wait until tomorrow when the Sindh government is releasing three JIT reports, including one against Uzair Baloch. Details of it are already in the media. It is this portrait of Pakistan that one shudders to look at.

Will this bombshell further make an unsettling impression on the minds of the people in the context of their inability to make sense of how power is abused and exercised in this potentially lawless country?

Thanks to the pandemic and the uncertainty that it has injected in every home and every life, people are likely to become more superstitious and credulous. In this setting, we had a lunar eclipse this weekend – late Friday night in Pakistan. For those who have an interest in the occult, let me quote an astrologer that “lunar eclipses tend to bring energies to a conclusion in a dramatic, unexpected or mind-blowing way”. It is, they say, sure to be cathartic.

Are you ready?

The writer is a senior journalist.


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