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July 18, 2017

Going gently into the good night


July 18, 2017

For his dying father, legendary Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote the fabled ‘Do not go gently into that good night’.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.…

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,/Because their words had forked no lightning they/Do not go gentle into that good night.”

It was a fierce rejection of an inevitable end. The kind of fierceness that comes from the love of a child for a father. Dylan Thomas employed those ageless fighting words to give life to the emotions of his father’s death.

Thomas’ appeal to reject the dying of the light, and to refuse a gentle entry into the night may appeal to some diehard PML-N loyalists. The impassioned plea to reject the natural order belongs firmly in poems written by children overcome with emotion for their parents. Everywhere else, the natural order should dominate.

The natural order has come calling for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Perhaps one of the savviest and most resilient politicians in our history, Sharif has been left for dead many times, and come back every time. We all remember how intensely resourceful the late Ghulam Ishaq Khan was. We all remember the incredible appeal of Shaheed Mohtarma BB. We all remember the blunt charm of SSG hero Pervez Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif saw off the challenge of every one of these giants, and stands alone. The fact that he managed all this without the Oxford charm of BB or Imran Khan, without the muscle of the military, at least since 1997 onwards, and without the education and guile of a CSP/DMG training is a tribute to just how good he is at surviving and winning in the Pakistani political arena.

The Joint Investigative Team (JIT) report was an unlikely source of a death blow. In my first piece after the Panama Papers were released, I had worried how much governance a prime minister could engage in, whilst trying to clear his name – but I had predicted that the legal and administrative morass of this country would prevent a calamitous outcome for Nawaz Sharif. I was wrong. The JIT report, with all its foibles, is a calamity for PM Sharif. Whatever the Supreme Court declares now is secondary, the fundamental basis for Nawaz Sharif’s continued leadership of the country is so deeply eroded that his continued role as leader of the most powerful party in Pakistani politics should pose a problem for all Pakistanis (especially those that belong to the PML-N).

In short, the question is not whether the prime minister should resign or not resign from his role as prime minister. No matter whether he resigns or does not resign, he will remain scarred and dogged by the allegations that the JIT has made in its report to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The question then is whether Nawaz Sharif is competent to carry on as the head of a major political party in Pakistan, or not.

Let’s deal with the more predictable responses to this question.

The English-medium Noonies will cry “uncle” and point to Aabpara and Rawalpindi. This is a most predictable (and often very reasonable) response to the troubles faced by elected civilian governments in Pakistan. In this instance, however, it will not wash. Unless the argument is that the GHQ and ISI first hypnotised the Sharif family into questionable business deals four decades ago, and forced them into offering a weak and disorganised legal and political defence.

The second is that the Sharifs aren’t the only ones with offshore wealth. This is factually true. But the Sharifs, who have enjoyed four years of power in Islamabad, Lahore and Quetta, could easily have spent the last fifteen months (since the Panama Papers were published) investigating every crooked judge, general, babu and politician and had them ready for the gallows. Instead, the entire might of the House of Ittefaq could not even come up with a consistent, believable or credible story about the movement of wealth from the genius of the original family patriarch to the bumbling of his grandsons before the entire nation.

If the Sharifs want to be angry, they should be angriest at themselves for equipping a parade of questionable actors with the ammunition to attack them ad infinitum. They could have not only presented a more credible case, but also built one against those that are throwing stones from within glass houses today. Alas, being serenaded by sycophants in the palace proves once again to be a sedative too strong.

The third set-piece response to appeals for PM Sharif to quit will be that no civilian has ever completed a five year term. This one is true but also arbitrary. It would indeed be fantastic to see an elected civilian leader complete five years in office – but we need to ask the question that matters here, instead of the one that sounds clever: what is the purpose of an electoral system? Is it to offer job security to those elected, or is it to serve the people of this country?

This brings us to the fourth and perhaps the strongest argument in favour of PM Sharif holding onto both the office of PM and his leadership of the PML-N. In the game of serving Pakistanis, PM Sharif has not done a terrible job. Recent analysis of the economy certainly raises questions about just how good Ishaq Dar has been at managing the debt, the current account deficit, the exchange rate or the interest rate. Still, the GDP growth rate has improved every year during this term. Many good questions are raised about service delivery in education, health and beyond, but many undisputedly positive things have also taken place. Similarly, power generation may be plagued with questions, but overall capacity has increased, and loadshedding has been reduced substantially. Roads, highways and urban infrastructure like metro buses and train lines have popped up at an unprecedented rate. It has been far from perfect, but the PML-N potentially has a strong case to take to voters in 2018 or sooner. The vast majority of Noonies will argue that all of these positives have been the work of the prime minister, and without him, it would all come tumbling down.

I would argue differently. The only thing that will ensure that the progress made since 2013 comes tumbling down is the insistence that only one man, and his daughter, can run Pakistan. More importantly, if the political, administrative and financial and fiduciary structures of the PML-N and the governments they run are so vulnerable to the departure of a single man and his immediate family, then one wonders what purpose the party’s large and robust membership serves.

We know for certain that the architect of infrastructure delivery is the First Brother, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and the architect of the economic recovery (warts and all) is the First Samdhee, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. But the argument that by gently fading into the good night Nawaz Sharif will trigger a political or administrative or economic Armageddon simply suggests that the entire array of PML-N ministers, MNAs, MPAs and spokespersons is one grand mime designed to wax lyrical about the Sharif family and its immediate relatives. Surely, this array of competent men and women, with long records of public service, serves a greater function than mimicry of talking points on TV talk shows. Surely, they must matter in the scheme of PML-N politics.

If the PML-N is a real political party, then now is the time for an internal conversation in the party that leads to regime change: not of the PML-N handing power to another party, but of Nawaz Sharif handing over the baton to another member of the same party.

I hope you are not holding your breath.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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