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December 29, 2018

The tragedy


December 29, 2018

Nawaz Sharif’s second conviction, like the first a few months ago, has taken few by surprise. While in the years to come the court of history may pronounce a different judgment upon the three-time prime minister, there’s little doubt that – with Shahbaz Sharif already battening down the hatches – at present the country’s once most powerful political dynasty is up the creek.

Sharif’s downfall is reminiscent of the trials and tribulations of the protagonist of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Widely regarded as the highest form of art, the tragedy portrays the doomed struggle of an extraordinary individual against forces much more powerful than him. The antagonist may take the form of fate or the gods – as in a Greek tragedy – tradition, orthodoxy or a hostile universe – as in the Shakespearean or Elizabethan tragedy – or a fiendish socio-economic system – as in the modern tragedy.

The protagonist may seem to be a freely choosing individual and thus the author of his misfortune but in reality he moves relentlessly towards his preordained tragic end. Though deeply protagonist-centric, the tragedy is far more than a mere personal odyssey. Inherent in the forlorn struggle of the protagonist are systemic questions regarding the role of man in the universe or the place of the individual in society.

Despite resting on a cataclysmic plot, the tragedy is not out-and-out pessimistic; nor does it end on a totally nihilistic note. In his sufferings, the tragic hero comes to a fuller and more fruitful understanding of the world and his own place in it. Before the end, he may even come to terms with the world he incessantly questioned and fought against. “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.” That’s how Shakespeare’s Hamlet finally learns to appreciate the world, which earlier had appeared to him as the “quintessence of dust”, as death stares him in the face.

Central to the tragedy is the notion of hamartia, which is a fatal ‘flaw’ in the otherwise impeccable character of the hero. It’s this flaw which makes him question, repudiate or defy the ‘reality’ to which others submit as a matter of course, and thus go through fire and water. Hamartia may take the form of procrastination or indecisiveness – as in Hamlet – cupidity for boundless knowledge and power – as in Dr Faustus – a grave error of judgment – as in Oedipus – or excessive pride and ego as in King Lear.

What’s Nawaz Sharif’s hamartia? To answer this question, let’s sketch his political saga. Sharif’s politics took off under Gen Ziaul Haq. For years, he remained the blue-eyed boy of the country’s power structures. It was in 1993 that he fell out with the then president, himself an archetype establishmentarian, and had to pack up his bags. Four years later, he got another bite at the cherry. His second stint as prime minister saw Sharif fall out with the president, the chief justice and the army chief. Although he forced all three to step down on the trot, he was doomed to bite the dust. In 1999, by a freak of fate, another general toppled and exiled him. To all appearances, his political career had come to an abrupt close.

Be that as it may, like the phoenix, Sharif rose from the ashes in 2008 and was back in the saddle five years later. His third term was no smooth sailing either. From the outset, it appeared he was riding for a fall. Unlike in 1993 and 1999, Sharif’s third ouster from the prime minister’s office was via a court decision over his failure to come clean on his assets. Instead of taking his disqualification on the chin, he adopted a defiant posture and started rounding on powers that he believed had unfairly brought the curtains down on his tenure. He was convicted by an accountability court and sent to prison. His party lost the national elections and he bore perhaps the greatest loss of his life when his spouse lost the battle

with cancer.

Back to the question: What’s Nawaz Sharif’s hamartia? Well, the answer depends on which side of the political equation you are. For his detractors, Sharif has not one but several fatal flaws. His politics is a classic example of biting the very hand that fed you. Befuddled by towering pride and unbridled egoism, he sought to rise roughshod over those institutions that were instrumental in his rise. He was an overreacher, like the mythological character Icarus who couldn’t curb the flight of his fancy, flew too close to the sun and had his wax-made wings melted, and thus plunged into the sea.

Nawaz Sharif’s political career, his detractors would say, is racked with massive corruption and abuse of power. Having been brought up in the lap of a dictator, he was never a democrat by heart. He politicised the bureaucracy, undermined democratic institutions, corporatised politics, and laid the foundations of crony capitalism. In his fall is the lesson that no one can eat from the tree of immorality forever. It’s only befitting that this sticky-fingered politician has been disqualified from holding public office, and convicted of amassing wealth through back-alley activities. His travails are thus an eloquent expression of poetic justice.

Nawaz Sharif’s defenders, however, would argue that Sharif may have been inducted into politics by a despot and he might just have prospered under the patronage of his regime. But by and by he pulled himself apart from his mentor’s legacy and set himself up as a leader in his own right through democratic politics. Since then he has been in the forefront of the fight for civilian supremacy.

Three times the electorate brought him to power with a clear mandate; three times he was removed. On each occasion, his unceremonious exit was out of kilter with the spirit of democracy, for a democratically elected leader can legitimately be shown the door only by the people or their representatives.

In the eyes of his supporters, Sharif was not given a fair trial and was punished in the name of accountability. His incessant struggle for strengthening democracy has made Sharif the most potent symbol of liberal politics in the country. Challenging the established order of things is

his only fault.

Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that the tragedy aimed at accomplishing a cathartic function by evoking a sense of fear and pity in the audience. The audience feels pity for the protagonist who passes through undeserving vicissitudes. He may have made a grave error of judgment but his punishment exceeds his sins. The audience feels fear for themselves lest they should share the hero’s unenviable fate.

For German philosopher Hegel, though, the travails of the tragic hero are a means of synthesising conflicting moral claims. In a tragic conflict, each side considers itself to be wholly right and good and its antagonist altogether wrong and evil. However, both are partly right and partly wrong.

The conflict is not between good and evil but between each side’s attempts to stake an exclusive claim on good. So it’s a clash between two sets of ethical claims working at cross-purposes. The protagonist is a thesis and the antagonist its antithesis; even the terms ‘protagonist’

and ‘antagonist’ are relative. It is through their clash that history advances and society marches ahead.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi