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June 21, 2016

Ailing republic…can anyone fix it?


June 21, 2016

Islamabad diary

Pakistan needs open-heart surgery too. Its arteries are clogged, too much not-healthy cholesterol, and even plain muck, in them. But Pakistan’s problem: the PM could afford a visit to a Harley Street clinic. Who’ll take Pakistan to Harley Street?

We’ve licked terrorism, or nearly licked it. The mopping up remains and no wonder because we had cultivated the terrorism gardens for more than 30 years and completely de-rooting this menace was going to take time. But the army with critical help from the air force took on terrorism and cleared most of the spaces under the command of terrorist armies. And that was a big thing. It should have given us a high, bolstered national confidence and given us hope for the future.

But why, despite this success, does Pakistan still look like a sick patient, something like the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the days of its decline when it was called the ‘sick man of Europe’? The successful assault on terrorism should have given us a sense of direction and purpose. Why is it that Pakistan still looks directionless, like a ship on the high seas headed for an uncertain destination?

The pilots on deck have their own problems, looking through different binoculars and pointing in different directions. Civilian pilots should be in charge but are not. It’s not just the PM’s absence which is causing complications. Certainly, government affairs being run out of Harley Street or Mayfair – where the PM and family have their less-than-austere flats – doesn’t give a very good impression, at least no good impression of Pakistan. Apart from anything else, Londoners can be tempted to ask: don’t you have these facilities in your own country? What’s the answer to that?

But when the PM returns, as he should soon, such questions would end. Some of the attendant cynicism will abate. There should then be no need for advisers and ministers to emplane for London and consult with him there. So outwardly there is little to worry about, no great reason to entertain gloomy thoughts.

Then what explains the palpable sense of unease in the air? Why the feeling, morphing into nervousness, that the month of fasting is an enforced lull which once over and Eid festivities done with, will see the political temperature rising?

This feeling that despite the outward calm all is not well underneath stems principally from two unresolved problems which despite the ruling party’s best efforts are refusing to go away: 1) the Panama leaks and 2) the Model Town case.

There is no agreement on the terms of reference for a Panama inquiry and all the signs suggest that there will be no agreement because government and opposition on this question are too far apart. The opposition parties are focusing on the PM because it is his children holding the offshore accounts and the London properties in their names, and the government side’s brief is that, come what may, the PM’s name should not figure in the terms of reference. The Model Town firing case sits like a heavy shadow on the ruling party because even in a certified banana republic 14 dead and scores injured by police firing is not a small matter.

We don’t know what kind of return ticket to Canada Allama Tahirul Qadri is carrying in his pocket. It is not easy to make predictions about someone as mercurial and shifting as him. But if, after Eid, he sets everything else aside and stops giving foolish deadlines about the government’s imminent downfall, and concentrates only on the Model Town case, the ruling party will have a serious situation on its hands.

And if the two things are combined, Panama leaks and Model Town – provided always that the Reverend Allama doesn’t catch a flight back to Canada and Imran Khan keeps his rhetoric under control, for he is not always the best master of his words – the situation becomes more serious, not just for the ruling party but for the country as a whole. The last thing Pakistan needs especially at this time when so many other problems, external and internal, stare it in the face is disorder and instability.

The additional worry is that the battlefield this time will be Lahore. If this comes to pass, the entire responsibility for maintaining law and order and preventing hotheads from getting strange ideas into their heads – like, say, marching towards Jati Umra – will fall on the shoulders of the Punjab Police, a force sadly demoralised and discredited by the Model Town incident. The army will not be coming to the defence of the Punjab government. Of that we can be sure. It will just be the CM and his raised finger, and Banquo’s ghost, the ghost of Model Town, sitting at his table.

To prevent this summer of discontent turning into anything worse what is needed is action on the part of the ruling party and, more than that, statesmanship. To begin with, the ruling party has to disabuse itself of the notion that these two issues – Panamagate and Model Town – can be swept under the carpet… that they can somehow be made to disappear. The clouds on the horizon suggest that is unlikely.

If the Reverend Allama can be won over – by no means an easy possibility – that of course is a different matter. The ruling party can then take it easy and concentrate on sowing divisions in the ranks of the opposition parties regarding the Panama leaks. But if the Allama remains adamant then it means trouble for the ruling party. The call for Qisas – blood for blood – which the Allama made before the crowd at Charing Cross has an ominous ring to it. And they had mock gallows strung up on the side. And we can bet upon it, this was just a trailer. We’ll have to wait for after Eid to see what unfolds next.

When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was prime minister, did anyone think that the murder of Nawab Muhammad Ahmed Khan would ever catch up with him? It did, no matter in how convoluted a manner. It takes extraordinary sanguineness to think that nothing will come of the Model Town massacre and it will just die away. The Nawab’s son, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, was won over and he even applied for a PPP ticket in the 1977 elections. But the fates had something else in store for Bhutto.

Just think about it: they went to remove a few traffic barriers – the two-and-a-half foot high medians which you see on the Motorway – from in front of the Allama’s residence in Model Town and ended up shooting 14 people. The barbarity comes afterwards. The sheer incompetence of it shines through first. And the ruling party is afraid even to publicise the report of the judicial commission announced by the Punjab government itself.

This is not the Cultural Revolution that we should say there is great disorder under the heavens and the situation is excellent. Pakistan cannot afford instability. But for the chances of disorder to be contained, real steps have to be taken, both on the leaks and the killings. The ruling party, however, still seems to be hoping that through some miracle of inaction the clouds of their own accord will disperse.

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