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December 28, 2012



If only mockery could work

If only mockery could work
Mockery on target can be devastating. Mockery out of place sounds hollow, rebounding on the perpetrator. It is easy to parody a self-styled Sheikh-ul-Islam in long dress and well-rounded cap. It is less easy to parody a disciplined gathering stretching from the Data Darbar to that side of the River Ravi.

Armchair samurais may think mobilising a vast crowd like this is easy. It isn’t. And money alone, even tons of it, can’t ensure the desired outcome. People in the mass can be stupid, the collective wisdom of the masses a piece of fiction politicians and media gurus love to play with. But about one thing, and this is strange, people are not stupid. They walk to an event -- could be any event, political gathering or pop concert -- only when their hearts lead them.

Of course one event -- as was proven by Imran Khan’s public show last year --does not a summer, or an upheaval, make. Bubbles form easily and as easily burst. How tall Imran Khan stood on the evening of Oct 30, 2011. Compared to those proportions he looks diminished today.

Lasting power…without it politics, or indeed anything, is nothing. So it is foolish to draw any final conclusions from Allama Professor Dr Tahirul Qadri’s massive public show -- and for once the word massive is not out of place -- on Dec 23. Will it lead to anything or was it just a freakish flash of lightning across the winter skies? The jury has to be out on this.

But one thing is clear. There was already enough uncertainty in the air. Would elections be on time? Was the ‘establishment’ cooking up anything? Now, after the professor’s pyrotechnic display, the uncertainty has morphed into a sense of foreboding. Where are we heading? Is the professor on his own or are powerful quarters backing him? Media wizards are going blue in the face with these questions.

Not to be missed in this maelstrom is the alacrity with which MQM chief Altaf Hussain has given his endorsement to the professor. Imran Khan’s approval is more guarded but it is there and coming from someone with his factory-sized ego it is the more surprising. The Khan finding merit in someone else -- will wonders never cease?

Angry pundits, nonplussed by the Allama’s politics, are questioning the timing of his homecoming. If he was so convinced of his reform programme, why did he wait to explode his bombshell so close to the elections?, they ask with gritted teeth. (As if he should have consulted their convenience rather than his own.)

If anything, the professor’s sense of timing has to be applauded. With projected elections some months away, anything sooner than December would have been too early. Anything later than December would have been too late.

But a flair for the dramatic, with which one must credit the professor, and an impeccable sense of timing are not enough for political miracles, at least not in the Islamic Republic. In our climate, however riveting a performance by politicians or other public figures, the suspicion remains of puppets on a string pulled this way and that in a light and sound show in which much of the real action is hidden from the spectators. The professor has been at pains to wash away this perception, greatly helped in this by the back-to-back TV interviews he was able to give to my friends Kamran Khan and Najam Sethi.

If the situation we face today had existed in times past we would have heard martial music by now and the playing out of the doctrine of necessity. No shortage of justifications for this. Unrest, insurgency, terrorism, dire economic situation, even threat of bankruptcy, and politicians tarred with a black brush. Even if much of this tarring is discounted as propaganda few sparks of inspiration can be detected from that quarter.

Mediocrity is depressing enough. Add to that a witches’ brew of incompetence and corruption and we have the holy mess that is the national situation today.

But we live in more complicated times. With Taliban wars, Balochistan unrest and an empty treasury, General Headquarters is in no position to afford the luxury of nation-saving a la Zia or Musharraf. Thus the new formula of which we hear more and more, a civilian façade held up by military scaffolding. Is the professor’s parachute landing a part of this design? Agitated minds are wrestling with this question.

If no part of this design the professor’s bubble will burst. I think we can safely bet on this. But if it is, then we are seeing the opening salvos in a game that could be very dangerous…pushing the nation, as always, into untested waters.

Does the professor’s face-reading yield any clues? He doesn’t look like a person who has taken on too much, more than he can handle. On the contrary, he looks very much in control of himself, as if he knows something we do not. Am I piling it on a bit too thick? Perhaps, but that’s my impression, for what it is worth.

But it all really hinges on the cardinals. If they have been on the lookout for an instrument, a cat’s paw, no one fits the bill more perfectly than the very articulate and adroit professor we have seen. And he does his homework, a man not only of the spoken word, and there would have to be few more eloquent orators than him in Pakistan today, but of the written word as well. Besides, the Islam he preaches, this being not a small point, is of the kind with which most Pakistanis, and even westerners, can relate, above sectarianism and the right antidote to the stuff made famous by the Taliban.

Ours is a stunted tree. No amount of water or fertiliser can make it straight. Preaching secularism, as I often do, won’t get anyone very far because on this soil this doctrine will never take root. Does anything sound gloomier than the echo of this word ‘never’? An incurable destiny, what can be gloomier than that? At any rate, only something like the moderate version of the faith that the professor preaches has any hope of succeeding. But I am running ahead.

More than the professor’s prescriptions, what is heightening the sense of foreboding is the deadline he has set -- not in the indefinite future but Jan 14. The government better accept his demand for an angelic caretaker setup -- which will then go on to cleanse the pitch for elections -- or it should be prepared for a march on Islamabad. Beware the ides of January then, should we not?

Going by the Lahore performance, there will be a crowd on Constitution Avenue. No fears about that. But what about the guardians? That’s the key question. In the restoration of the judges in Mar 2009, the so-called long march was the thing played out on the surface. The clincher was the quiet word from Gen Kayani and when it came, President Zardari, needing no lessons in realism from anyone, saw the light. If anyone still clings to the fiction of people’s power there is nothing much to say.

Just as there is nothing much to say when brave-hearts proclaim that democracy has come of age and is not to be trifled with. More power to their fantasies. The strongest guarantor of democracy these past two years has not been the letter of the constitution or the majesty of any institution but the three-year extension in service granted to Gen Kayani. If Zardari had been a lesser student of realism than he is, if in any manner he had balked at the notion of this extension, we would have heard a different tune by now.

Suspense and drama -- was ever a January more keenly awaited? All thanks to the Professor Allama and his skill at the oratorical arts. Or perhaps because of the choreographers whose full play we are yet to see.

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