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May 20, 2018

Choose your side


May 20, 2018

In treacherous times such as these, how do you keep your cool and protect your sanity? Does Ramazan, with its prescribed piety and patience, help? In any case, the overall situation is laden with incomprehensible anxieties and dark premonitions.

Politics is affecting the psychological well-being of a large number of citizens who also have to struggle with the living of their lives. The mainstream media, forever flawed in its professional and ethical conduct, is not able to provide any clarifications and social media, though now a major source of information, has problems of its own.

Ramazan does enforce its own rhythm and changes the pace of events. At least in its initial days, before the rush of Iftar parties and night-time Eid shopping, everything slows down. An additional hazard is the weather, meteorologically speaking. Ramazan’s arrival has coincided with a blistering heatwave in Karachi, where I live.

In a break from the usual pattern, political temperature has not fallen, though the round of rallies had peaked just before the month of fasting. I have alluded to the media shortfall in terms of its coverage of some developments. But it was the interview of an exceptionally belligerent Nawaz Sharif that has caused an upheaval.

We now have a heated and potentially jingoistic debate on what it takes to be a patriot or a traitor. That the patriotism of a leader of the stature of Nawaz Sharif, who has been elected prime minister three times, can be questioned by his adversaries is a measure of the recklessness of our political discourse. Yet the issue has aroused incredible passions.

The timing of this upheaval is crucial. Before Eid, the party of Nawaz Sharif, that is in office if not in power, will conclude its term and a caretaker establishment will hold elections, expected in July. While much of the focus has so far rested on a string of defections from the PML-N to Imran Khan’s PTI, with no qualms about any ideological or moral obligations, Nawaz Sharif’s stance is surely the heart of the matter. It has a bearing on Pakistan’s future as a democracy.

We can trace the steps that have led to the present predicament. It began with the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister by the Supreme Court in the Panama case. Then he was disqualified for life while still embroiled in multiple cases. There is a strong possibility that he will be convicted and sent to prison, with contrary opinions on how it would impact his campaign.

Another salient feature of the present politics is the emergence of Maryam Nawaz as the standard-bearer of her father’s defiance. Here we have the familiar strands of dynastic politics. The irony here is that the formal successor to Nawaz is younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, the dynamic chief minister of Punjab. Hence, the dynastic equation is not easy to work out. That Maryam has acquired some charisma is instructive.

At one level, it is PML-N versus PTI, with Asif Zardari’s PPP playing the second lead. At another level, it is the dissent within the party of Nawaz Sharif that is bound to have consequences. And I am not referring to the defectors who are voting with their feet. In fact, it is the battle for the soul of the party that has acquired a new edge after the publication of Nawaz’s interview. Roughly, this tussle is personified by Maryam Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif.

Usually, political parties, in their quest for power, remain fuzzy about their policy options on major issues. Then, the civil-military relations have always remained tentative in nature, with cyclical shifts in the balance. Now Nawaz Sharif, a veritable child of the establishment and professedly of the right-wing, has embarked on an uncharted path of defiance.

He obviously does not have the demeanour of a revolutionary but the banner he has raised has an incendiary message. Since his own party is not entirely in sync with this message, it has caused havoc in the ideological alignments of his party. On one end of this line is Chaudhry Nisar and on the other is, in a sense, Pervez Rashid. And never the twain shall meet, it seems.

This means that not just across the entire political spectrum, but also within the PML-N, they need to seriously reflect on the side they should choose. This is not the kind of reflection that many of our politicians are intellectually capable of. All they care for is a place on the table. But the table itself – or call it the system – is tottering.

We may not be debating it with any clarity but you may feel a seismic shift in our politics. The country is in dire straits, signifying a loss in its sense of directions. It is difficult to assess the reach and depth of Nawaz Sharif’s defiance. The real battlefield, of course, is Punjab, but the peripheries have shown signs of unrest. We have some time before the elections and a few more triggers may still be pulled.

As for the national state of affairs, I am tempted to invoke Wednesday’s massive power breakdown as a metaphor. The promise to end loadshedding has assumed legendry significance in our recent politics and great efforts have been invested in this enterprise. What Wednesday’s power failure highlighted is very significant. You may have all the power you need but it will not help if the distribution system is broken.

This breakdown crippled the power system in almost entire Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Azad Kashmir and some parts of Sindh for nearly eight hours. The threat of something like this happening again is very real. You just have to look at the wild tangle of electricity cables in some urban shopping centres to realise that the entire structure is faulty and fragile.

It is about the same in the other arena of power we know as the command of authority by our rulers. There is power but its benefits do not reach out to the lower depths of our society. Democracy ideally allows – no, I am not using ‘allows’ in any other context – citizens to have meaningful participation in power. But we are not certain about where power actually resides and how it is to be used to validate the fundamental principles of democracy. There was that PPP slogan: ‘all power belongs to the people’. But the PPP leaders now tend to be very forgetful. Is that why Nawaz Sharif recalls Zulfikar Ali Bhutto more frequently than them?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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