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October 4, 2020

For the wheel is still in spin

Opinion

October 4, 2020

Before it lands on the streets, the protest movement of the opposition has invaded the minds of the populace. A beginning was made when Nawaz Sharif addressed the multi-party conference via video link on September 20. But the tempo has sharply risen this week. And Imran Khan’s government has launched its counter-offensive, with intimations of a vicious political conflagration. And that can have unforeseen consequences in a deeply polarised society.

So, is this a transformational time in Pakistan? A fundamental issue that has a bearing on our national sense of direction is at the heart of the impending confrontation. Yet, there is utter lack of clarity in how the two sides are defining their position. Besides, it does not seem possible to be candid about the underlying causes of this conflict.

What has now emerged is that those who are in power have decided to use a very dangerous weapon. While Nawaz Sharif’s focus is on the repeated interventions in the political sphere, Imran Khan is putting a spin on it to argue that the only Pakistani politician who has thrice been the prime minister is maligning the military on the behest of India and anti-Pakistan elements.

In fact, this potentially dubious charge is being systemically injected into the evolving political discourse. Imran Khan stressed this point in his TV interview telecast on Thursday. It was clearly intended as a rebuttal of the speech Nawaz Sharif had made earlier in the day. Though Nawaz Sharif’s video link address was shown live on most channels, it readily prompted a Pemra ban and it was absent from the prime time bulletins and talk-shows.

This Pemra order, prohibiting news channels from broadcasting interviews and public addresses by “proclaimed offenders and absconders”, is another sign that the government is feeling the heat. Initially, Nawaz Sharif’s address to the inaugural session of the combined opposition was said to have been allowed by the prime minister to ostensibly show that the former prime minister was not really a threat.

That perception has now changed. For the time being, political stability is at stake and the prospect of a national dialogue – an imperative for the defence of the constitutional and democratic process – is simply not in sight. On its part, the opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), is also set on overthrowing the present arrangement, which is a forbidding task.

But, to be sure, the die is cast. Nawaz Sharif has crossed the proverbial Rubicon. This means that a lot would depend on how the power elite, including the establishment, is able to sort out this crisis. In any case, we can expect that Pakistan, in the context of its political equilibrium, will not be the same when this battle is over.

Considering the anxieties that are embedded in the existing situation, that Bob Dylan song of the sixties is reverberating in my mind: The times, they are a-changin’. Bob Dylan, singer and song-writer, who surprisingly won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, wanted it to be an anthem of change for that time.

I am tempted to share with you its middle stanza: “Come writers and critics / Who prophesise with your pen / And keep your eyes wide / The chance won’t come again / And don’t speak too soon / For the wheel’s still in spin / And there is no tellin’ who / That it’s namin’ / For the loser now / Will be later to win / For the times they are a-changin’”.

This reference is also my excuse to look out of the window of our domestic politics, at a global scene that is darkened by unrest and anxiety. This year of the pandemic has sparked off so many upheavals in so many countries. It has played havoc with the individual lives of countless people. Some months ago, I had shared my personal heartache on not being able to meet our daughters and their families because it is not possible to travel to Europe and the States.

On Friday, the world was shocked to learn that President Trump and his wife have tested positive for coronavirus. This was, as one columnist of The New York Times said, “at once stunning, startling and somehow spiritually consistent with the bleaker-than-fiction course of this endless, relentless year”.

We, in Pakistan, are also threatened by the second wave of the pandemic. We have been lucky so far but there was this scare in Karachi this week. Smart lockdowns in restricted areas are back and many restaurants and wedding halls have been sealed for not observing the SOPs. The numbers are gradually rising.

What it means to the ordinary people, already wounded by economic difficulties, is generally not present to those who are at the helm of affairs. As for the Imran brigade, it has obsessively been preoccupied with the opposition, waving its red banner of accountability. All that the official spokespersons can do is to vilify the opposition in a theatrical style.

But it is also the opposition’s responsibility to raise the level of the political discourse and make it more relevant to the daily concerns of the common citizens of this country. In his speech on Thursday, Nawaz Sharif did talk about the economic deprivations of the people and the state of governance during the past two years.

But there should be more and sustained stress on this aspect of the opposition’s narrative. It may also dilute the toxicity of the anti-state rhetoric. In his TV interview, Imran Khan said that he was 100 percent sure that India is helping Nawaz. This is an astounding assertion, though he has a point when he says that the game Nawaz Sharif has initiated is dangerous.

How dangerous it becomes will depend on the moves that the two – or three? – sides make in the coming days. The PDM is to hold its maiden rally in Quetta next Sunday, a day before the anniversary of the coup in 1999. We have to see if the Quetta ‘jalsa’ is a big show. But a week is a long time in politics.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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