Political doppelgangers

Published November 3, 2013

IT’S a tale of two men, one smart, the other stupid, one fierce, the other weak, one now dead, the other alive. The tale is of Pakistan, circa 2013.

Let’s start with the smart, fierce and dead one: Hakeemullah.

As controversial in death as he was in life — drone? Now? Why — have a look at what came before.

How he ran rings around us — Pakistan — this past year. One moment he wanted peace, the next he was blowing up stuff, the moment after he wanted to dismantle the Constitution, and then, just like that, back to the original offer of vague peace. Through it all, he remained in-charge.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s super-Taliban, Hakeemulllah.

Here’s what Hakeemullah managed. He swung an election, wiping the already deeply unpopular ANP and PPP clean off the board.

He made the TTP hip again. Battered by the avalanche of negative publicity — or what’s also known as the truth — the TTP had lost the sympathy of the average Pakistani. Nobody likes to be blown up, even if they happen to really like religion.

But then Hakeemullah made an eminently reasonable offer: we’ll end our war against you, just repent and get the whole religion thing right, ie give everyone the real deal, not what your hybrid Constitution says. Who could argue with that?

He made his best friend grovel. Taliban Khan was the only one out there arguing that talks and talks alone could end the militancy threat. But that wasn’t enough for Hakeemullah.

After all, best friend or no best friend, trust no one. So Hakeemullah set about twisting Taliban Khan’s arm too.

PTI was hit, KP was hit and mysterious TTP offshoots appeared out of nowhere to claim responsibility for the attacks — leaving Khan more insistent than ever that talks are the only answer.

For Khan, it’s fairly obvious: if talks weren’t going to achieve anything, then why all this effort to scupper them?

For Hakeemullah, it must have been worth a chuckle or two. Cooperative folk these Pakistanis are, he may have thought, hit them hard and they’ll talk peace, hit them harder and they’ll beg for peace.

But more than anything else, Hakeemullah showed the way forward for militancy: the political militant.

Part showman, part mass murderer, part political animal, Hakeemullah moved the goal posts for a militant mastermind. He didn’t just create an aura of fear and intimidation, he teased and cajoled and coaxed too.

Where his fellow militants could think of little else besides blasting their way towards a few, narrow objectives, Hakeemullah’s world was more expansive. Why blow stuff up when you can screw with minds too?

But to complete Hakeemullah, he needed a partner.

Enter his political doppelganger from circa 2013. Enter Taliban Khan.

The problem with Khan isn’t that he’s the only one who subscribes to loopy ideas about peace. The problem with Khan is that he’s the only one you can’t ignore.

Not because he runs KP. Not because he got a handful of seats nationally. Not because he got a chunk of votes. No, you can’t ignore Khan because Khan got under the skin of Nawaz.

And that really matters.

True, it’s a Nawaz government that presided over the call for talks. True, the PML-N is OK coexisting with militancy. True, Punjab’s safety and security ranks ahead of everything else for the PML-N. True, all of that means the PML-N isn’t exactly averse to the idea of talks.

But Nawaz has never really been the cheerleader for talks. He says talks, but you can sense the distaste. There are at least two reasons for that.

One, the TTP are messy and uncouth. Who are these raggedy upstarts who think they’re going to tell me what to do, Sharif must think.

Two, Nawaz was once an aspiring amir-ul-momineen. How can the TTP lecture him about what is and isn’t Islam?

But then there’s Imran, the man who tried to steal Nawaz’s politics and his crown in Punjab. For much of this year, Imran has hammered away at Nawaz and the PML-N, to the point that it has befuddled many in the PML-N.

Why doesn’t he go after Zardari or the ANP, they often complained before the election. After the election, the PML-N seemed more overjoyed that they had crushed Khan in Punjab than that they had just swept to an unexpected majority in parliament.

Of course, post-election Imran can’t be ignored. He’s proven his brand of populism has gained traction with the very same segment of voters the PML-N has long cultivated. So if he yells about something and keeps on yelling about it, the PML-N has to watch how the needle of public opinion moves.

Which is all really par for the course in politics.

The tricky bit is where he got under the skin of Nawaz: so fearful has the PML-N become of Khan’s rabble-rousing, they are hesitant to challenge him even on his loopier ideas.

Or forget PML-N generally, which is chock-full of opportunistic right-wingers; imagine if Nawaz himself were to push back against some of the crazier bits of the crazy talk spearheaded by the PTI and its leader?

In his folksy style with his heavyweight political and good-Muslim credentials, if Nawaz were to say to the people, actually, these TTP guys are pretty nasty and while we want peace, we can’t do it on their terms — how much would that do to puncture Khan’s narrative on the TTP?

A fair bit probably. But Nawaz is silent. Because Imran has got under his skin.

Hakeemullah and Imran: the tale of Pakistan circa 2013. Next year could be Nawaz’s, but first he’ll have to get his mojo back.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm



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