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Thursday April 25, 2024

Back to our worst

By Asha’ar Rehman
March 11, 2023

We cannot but compare the current state of affairs in the country to the ugly 1980s and 1990s – or to 1977, for that matter. Then, the pundits would tell everyone around to ‘wait for’ violence to add irrefutable substance to a movement. The spilling of the blood was thought to be essential for providing the agitation with a catalyst. Once the law enforcers or, failing them, political activists in the ’enemy’ camp, were sufficiently provoked to resort to violence, the success of the movement was more than guaranteed.

Decades later, an effort is inevitably on to once again use the unfortunate killing of a political worker as the game-clincher. There can be no grimmer reminder of the presence of the vicious circle that we are condemned to move in forever.

The worst part is that the death of Ali Bilal aka Zille Shah has come during the tenure of a government that was supposed to be neutral. Maybe it is too early to definitely put the blame on a certain individual or group for the incident but this is just what the Mohsin Naqvi-led setup needed to avoid. And ‘this’ here includes just not the rioting and killing, but also the very act of invoking Section 144 in an ominous tribute to the undemocratic traditions rooted deep in this land.

Still a few things have moved forward from the simpler 1970s. Back then, we had to wait for the next day’s newspaper to see the image of the ones waylaid by the duty-bound agents of authorities, the infamous policemen. The victim this time is more well-known. There is footage available that will endear him to the Imran Khan faithful, of him coming face to face with the police allegedly a short while before his summary removal from the scene. These powerful images will be most difficult to counter, especially when at the helm are people who have been unable to establish their neutrality. Indeed, they appear so indifferent to all these accusations of partisanship and have made no effort whatsoever to undergo an exercise in clearing their name.

The story has been unfolding, without fault, like the formula we wished we had wriggled out of. Court cases, non-stop mudslinging, top-notch leaders mocking their rivals from stage as if they want to make the ordinary emotional worker redundant, oral battles bringing out the crudest personal innuendo out of the most desperate power-seekers, people oppressed under a sea of inflation… and now the killing of a worker in Lahore. This is enough to leave people scarred for life.

This was one episode which required a most deft handling, and a failure to do so spawns the most horrible scenarios about the interim government’s ability to safely see the province through these most dangerous times.

Punjab, which must fulfil its responsibility of deciding the next elected ruler of Pakistan, is simmering under an opposition onslaught led by Imran Khan and it is showing signs of unease that precedes a general election. From Maryam Nawaz Sharif to Asif Ali Zardari, the leaders of the big parties in the ruling coalition at the centre are finding it difficult to not be swept away by their desires for re-establishing their individual identities. It is quite clear that, while the PDM-PPP alliance may be trying to push the polls by a few months, deep in their hearts they foresee elections all over the country in the near future.

The sooner these elections are announced, the better it will be for the future of Pakistanis who are passing through the most dire phase thanks mostly to a lack of economic vision. Otherwise, the recent Lahore violence could only be a prelude to even bloodier days ahead. The parties which are reluctant to face Imran Khan in an electoral contest should have long ago realized that, with the passage of time, the chances of them succeeding at the polls are going to further diminish with time. There is little evidence that the popularity graph of the ‘non’-politician the veterans of our political arena are jointly so afraid of is going to decline any time soon.

For that fall in popularity, Imran Khan’s critics will have to wait for a scenario where he is in power yet powerless to overcome the challenges he is faced with. Anything short of this is highly unlikely to check Khan’s continuous rise as a leader who is ‘ most deserving of a chance to govern this problems-ridden country. Those who wish that the PTI chief can be discredited while in opposition are badly mistaken in their analysis.

Maybe, the pragmatic politicians – the Zardaris of this world et al – would want to put some stress now on containing who they are finding tough to defeat. They can ill afford power pursuits away while leaving their home base exposed to a foray by Imran Khan.

The writer is a senior journalist.