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November 20, 2019

The importance of being flexible


November 20, 2019

Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s (MFR) Islamabad sit-in, Plan-A of his Azadi March, terminated not with a bang but with a whimper. Now he is well into Plan-B under which his party activists are closing highways across the country. How long Plan-B lasts or whether its followed by Plan-C is anybody’s guess.

Has MFR’s Azadi March been a failure or success? As the success or failure of any strategy is relative to its objectives, we need to consider what he homed in on. If his primary objective is to put the squeeze on the prime minister to step down, thus paving the way for snap polls, Maulana has come a cropper. If the march aims at emasculating the government, we can safely say that it has hit the bull’s eye.

Even before the JUI leader had set off his campaign, the government bowed to the traders, who account for 19 percent of the economy but pay less than one percent in taxes. In case the anti-government drive was actuated by a different reason, which even an astute journalist or an adept analyst is either ignorant of or wimps out of pulling the lid off, we had better not pass a verdict on its outcome.

By the same token, the question whether the PPP and the PML-N stabbed MFR in the back by refusing to be part of his Islamabad dharna or they had never assured him of all-out support remains shrouded in uncertainty – not least for the reason that we are not sure what either party has set out to achieve in the short-run.

Politics is an art of creating perceptual illusions and political leaders seldom state what they intend. By their words, or antics, they may make people at the bottom of the political heap live or die for a cause to which their own commitment is at best nominal. At any rate, a seasoned politician doesn’t lay their cards on the table. Deception is the basis of a successful war, no matter on which turf it is played. In politics, and in business as well, you may even need to keep your allies and own people guessing as to what you want to achieve. That happened during the 2007 lawyers’ movement, which aimed at reinstating the country’s top judge and later other members of the upper judiciary sacked by General Pervez Musharraf.

While PPP activists, along with those from other political parties and civil society, were being beaten by the police, Benazir Bhutto was negotiating a deal with the general so that she could come back home from exile. On October 5, 2007, Gen Musharraf promulgated the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which granted amnesty to Bhutto and other politicians, as well as some bureaucrats, who were accused of corruption.

Alas, Benazir Bhutto was shortly assassinated, but her party won the ensuing elections and formed government – but turned its back on the reinstatement of the judges.

Thus what for ordinary people and political workers is a critical issue may be no more than a smoke screen for the high leadership. So at times a judgment regarding the success or failure of a political strategy or movement may be off the mark.

Philosopher F H Bradley once remarked that there’s more in the mind than before it. By the same token, there’s usually more to a political tug-of-war than meets the eye. Very often a self-styled change-maker is at heart a staunch defender of the status quo; a fierce opponent of corrupt politics himself worships at the temple of Mammon; a so-called saviour is at bottom an imposter. Apparently, the most intense of political conflicts are in reality a put-up job. Leaders may appear to be putting up a brave fight when they are actually making a virtue of necessity. Each player wants the balancer to put its weight behind them. Only when the scales begin tipping towards the other side that they start crying foul.

If you can’t beat them, join them; if you can’t join them, fight them – and so on. At all events, flexibility and adaptability are the prime virtues in every battlefield. In the early 1990s, the winds of change blowing across the globe sounded the death-knell for socialism in Eastern Europe. In Pakistan, as in several other nations, the leftists who were keeping their fingers on the pulse of history quickly shifted gears and took refuge under the umbrella of NGOs, which are essentially an instrument of capitalism. Many a frontline Marxists became top NGO executives.

The ideal of a classless society to be set up through collective struggle gave place to the paramount need to protect the individual fundamental rights – including the right to property; revolution made way for incremental change, the goal of uprooting the system was discarded in favour of letting the system work. On the other hand, the unfortunate, stubborn souls who still laboured under the delusion that the socialist ideal was irreplaceable were snuffed out by the zeitgeist.

An analogy may be drawn between politics and horse racing. While the voluble spectators as well those who have put their money on one of the runners watch with bated breath – and may even square off – as their favourite’s fortune fluctuates, both the jockeys and race organizers take it easy, knowing that the outcome of the contest is pre-determined and they have to simply act out their role in the unwritten script.

One class has ruled the roost for the last 70 years. Members of this class occupy most of the important positions: in politics and business, industry and agriculture, civil and military bureaucracy, media and civil society. Even the so-called intellectuals that we boast of are predominantly drawn from this elite class. It wants change but only that which is calculated to advancing its members’ interests. They pay only lip service to improving public health and education, because they have access to top-of-the-line hospitals and academic institutions. They seldom raise their voice against unlawful appointments in the government because they are not dependent on the public sector for jobs.

There’s thus a wide chasm between the elite and the masses. While the elite call for mere transition, the majority of the population, wisely or unwisely, is willing to pay allegiance to anyone who in their perception is committed to real transformation of society. To them it doesn’t matter at all whether he is clean-shaven, half-shaven or wears a beard; is a man of the world or a man of religion; has a puritanical or permissive outlook on life, speaks English, Urdu or a regional language, is dressed immaculately or shabbily; wears a turban or a cap; smokes cigarette, pipe or cigar; is an alcoholic or a total abstainer; was educated at Harvard, Oxford, or in a village school or a seminary.

That’s why the people back anyone who promises change. But every self-proclaimed deliverer turns out to be a hoax and the people are left at the mercy of the same corrupt, fickle, and flirtatious elite.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi