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Spoon of the year award

December 22, 2006

COME December and thoughts turn to summing up the year gone by and soon to become part of history. What was it like and what its major events? Time magazine, an emblem of American culture if not always of American good sense, gets busy choosing its Man or Woman of the Year.

In Pakistan we face a slightly more onerous, if not daunting, task: selecting the Spoon of the Year. Among the ranks of the sycophantic faithful who was his/her master’s loudest voice? In calm weather and stormy, who held high the banner of flattery above and beyond the call of duty?

General or Army Headquarters may be Pakistan’s most permanent political party. But even more enduring than anything coming from its hallowed precincts is the National Spoon League.

Tinpot dictators come and go. The Spoon League in Pakistan remains forever.

Pakistan’s saviours — when will we see the last of them? — may have all the army’s divisions behind their backs. But to make the right kind of impression in the political arena they still need their own qawwals and tabla and harmonium players.

The National Spoon League — its members drawn from all the four provinces, its traditions going back to the dawn of history — fulfils this essential need.

The Sarkari (official) Muslim League — Gen Pervez Musharraf’s second favourite political party, his first of course being the MQM — is celebrating the Muslim League’s centennial. The party of Pakistan’s independence, the party of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, reduced to the comic opera being conducted by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Mushahid Hussain Syed. Says it all, doesn’t it?

So selecting Spoon of the Year — the khan-i-khanan of chamchas, so to speak, from a warehouse of champion cutlery — is serious stuff and no easy matter given the competition involved and the kind of professionals we have in Pakistan.

From top to bottom the entire Q (Sarkari) League has to be considered because its first, second and third tiers seem to have no other business in the world except sing the General-President’s praises and insinuate, if not say explicitly, that he is the best thing to have happened to Pakistan since the Quaid-i-Azam. (After the uses to which we have put his name, the Lord keep Jinnah’s body from turning in its grave.)

Don’t be misled by the name. The spirit the Q League represents is as old as the hills. We have had contraptions like it before, in Iskander Mirza’s time the Republican Party, in Field Marshal (self-appointed) Ayub Khan’s time the Convention League. Their purpose only one: to hail the Caesar/adventurer of the moment as a national deliverer.

No country in the world has been saved more often in the last 50 years than Pakistan. If the Pakistani nation has one wish, overriding all others, it is to be saved from being saved.

Returning to the hosannas of the Spoon Brigade, and this is the bit that takes your breath away, the hailing is done with so much conviction, so much passion, that some of us are conned into believing that this time round it is the genuine article, the rider on horseback (a pitiful metaphor, done to death in Pakistan, because today’s riders prefer Mercedes’ cavalcades) really saving the nation.

A word of explanation: the word spoon in English does not convey the flavour of its Urdu or Punjabi equivalent, chamcha. A chamcha means flattery, sycophancy and the readiness to be put to any use — shout slogans for or against anything, hail anyone as a deliverer or a gift from God — all rolled into one.

Like the moth is attracted to the flame, the chamcha is attracted to power, high or low it doesn’t matter. This is a universal phenomenon, almost an aspect of the human condition. Bush has his spoons who, in the face of all the evidence, still insist that Iraq must not be given up. Blair has his. But this art has been carried to such heights in Pakistan, and cultivated on so wide a scale, that it has left all other art forms behind it.

We paint and adorn our load-carrying trucks like no other country in the world. And we ply our spoons like no other nation on earth. These are the two leading aspects of Pakistani culture today.

Spoons come in all shapes and sizes. When a closet maulvi like Gen Ziaul Haq comes to power, the clergy, stepping boldly forward, assume the role of his leading spoons, hailing him as a true servant of Islam and in return being rewarded with privileges for being able to see the light and make out the difference between truth and falsehood. We are still living with the consequences of that unholy alliance.

When a ‘liberal’ like Gen Musharraf comes to power, through the same back entrance Zia used, the national liberati, the English-speaking chattering classes (including such latter-day revisionists as Khan Roedad Khan) are aflutter, ecstatic that one of their own has finally arrived. This love affair is no longer hot but it is not completely over, the English-speaking chattering classes still thinking Musharraf to be better than any of the alternatives.

To give but one instance of the kind of spoon-craft we Pakistanis are capable of, at a meeting of journalists, or ‘senior journalists’ as we say here, with Musharraf (this was many moons ago), my own sinful ears heard a female journalist, comely no doubt, say that whatever else might be said, there was no denying the president’s charisma and personality. If memory serves, she went on to say that this was an asset on which we should build. How do you beat this?

Some journalists even go on to write, or help write, the saviour’s memoirs. How in the name of all that is sacred do you beat that?

Shaukat Aziz’s jumbo size cabinet, its precise number baffling the best attempts at mathematical computation, is adorned with some heavyweight spoons who can be trusted to read and interpret the Constitution, or any other law for that matter, according to Musharraf’s needs and convenience.

He can do what he likes, raise any kind of obstacles to suit himself and hamper the opposition, and Muhammad Ali Durrani, Sher Afgan Niazi, Wasi Zafar, Neelofar Bakhtiar, Tariq Azim, Lt Gen (rtd) Javed Ashraf Qazi, Sumaira Malik, to name only a few amongst that vast crowd, can be counted on to raise their right hands and, quoting chapter and verse, proclaim that it is all strictly in accordance with the Constitution. Nay, that it is vital for the national interest.

Shaukat himself is no mean practitioner of this art. It is not easy being a marionette in this kind of set-up, the president calling all the shots and all roads leading to Army House. But hand it to Shaukat for remaining unfazed, saying the right things all the time and, this being his greatest strength, never stepping out of line.

He’s come a long way, arriving from nowhere and after being interviewed at GHQ, becoming finance minister. Then biding his time, working the shadows and when everyone, including a few close to Musharraf, thought the prime minister after Zafarullah Jamali was to be someone else, quietly slipping into the slot and carrying the prize away.

Nor is this all for given his almost transparent ambition it wouldn’t be farfetched to suppose that he thinks his best days are still ahead. But this is dangerous stuff. Let Macbeth dream his own dreams.

Not to be underestimated also is the redoubtable Punjab chief minister, Chaudhry Pervaiz Ellahi, who on a recent visit to Chakwal (where else?) said that Musharraf would be elected president in uniform over and over again and indeed to do so was in the highest national interest as Musharraf was now a symbol of the nation and of its new-found strength and prosperity. Not easy to beat this.

The holy fathers of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal have added a whole new dimension to the finer aspects of the cutlery trade. They don’t say anything in Musharraf’s favour. Indeed, to hear them speak is to get an impression of the fire and brimstone of which the scriptures speak. But in terms of how their hypocrisy and actions have come to the regime’s assistance, they have emerged as amongst the biggest and the most effective spoons on the national horizon.

So the winner is...no, the competition is too intense and it lies not in mortal power to choose the one spoon in Pakistani politics outshining all others in 2006. For this a higher jury will have to be called.