Reprieve for ‘tinpotism’

Published September 14, 2007

THE events of Sept 10, leading to Nawaz Sharif’s deportation to Saudi Arabia, have handed Pervez Musharraf his first success, or something he can savour, since March 9. The general was down and out. Now he is back on his feet, or so appearances would suggest.

The PML-N is shell-shocked, still trying to come to terms with the yawning gap between its rhetoric and ground realities. The Q League, still finding it hard to believe its luck, is back in business, the growing murmurs of disquiet in its ranks abruptly halting. Rule out any more crossing of party lines. The road to Musharraf’s ‘re-election’ as president from these assemblies — still his safest bet — thus looks clearer than for a long time.

The Pakistani media has come of age and the higher judiciary has asserted its independence but political parties are in a bad way, incapable of homework or doing things in an organised manner. On their own PML-N workers had slipped into Rawalpindi by Sept 10, the day of Nawaz Sharif’s homecoming. But there was no one to lead them or show them the way.

No need to come down hard on them. Our political parties are ‘election’ parties, not instruments of struggle or agitation. And their leaders are ‘press conference’, now also TV talk show, experts, fiery of speech but slow of action.

The Jamaat-i-Islami is an organised political party but it has a narrow political base. The MQM is an organised party with a mass base among its ethnic constituency. But it is organised on lines that don’t much distinguish it from the party of Adolf Hitler. Neither of the two would be the preferred cup of tea of the ordinary, moderate, mainstream-swimming Pakistani.

The last political movement in Pakistan took place in 1977, 30 years ago. The political class talks of mass movements as if these can be started by turning on a switch. This is more like nostalgia for a misty past bathed in the colours of drama and romance. The PPP and the PML-N can win elections, as they have proved more than once. But expect them not to be good at erecting barricades or lobbing Molotov cocktails.

On the road to Lahore, or from a prison cell, Sharif would have posed a serious threat to Musharraf. But putting him on a plane to Jeddah amounted to wrong-footing him and his supporters. The script had changed for which they were wholly unprepared.The lawyers’ movement went on for so long precisely because the lawyers’ community is organised differently from our political parties. The lawyers have a nation-wide organisation grounded in an act of parliament. They hold regular elections and the decisions of their national leadership are collective in nature. Our political parties for the most part are family affairs with the cult of personality strong in them and leaders more despotically-inclined than a chief of the army staff (who when it comes to major decisions has to take his colleagues with him).

Still, it was but natural that Sharif’s expulsion should have triggered a storm of moral indignation: of how the law, the Constitution, the decision of the Supreme Court allowing the Sharifs to return to the country, had been trampled upon. All this is true but then we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that while we have a semblance of the law in Pakistan, the most powerful factor in national life is not the tenets of the Constitution but the dynamics of military rule.

Musharraf is not in power because of the Constitution. He is there in spite of it, his grip on power ensured and even sanctified by his military position. In expelling Sharif he consulted not the Constitution or even the verdict of the Supreme Court but the demands of his survival.

Allowing Sharif to stay in Pakistan would have undermined his rule, further weakened his grip on power and encouraged his own supporters in the Q League to jump from what looked dangerously like a sinking ship. So he consulted his survival and had Sharif packed off to Jeddah.

Undoubtedly, this is a deplorable state of affairs but fully in tune with much of our history. No strangers to the logic of authoritarian rule we have seen worse things happening: a succession of first-rate disasters as rulers, wars driven by criminal folly, the breakup of Pakistan, the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Zia’s tyranny, Islam put in the service of hypocrisy. The list is long and growing.

Moral indignation while a worthy sentiment is no substitute for proper action. Dictatorship and authoritarianism can be denounced as much as we like but unless a real challenge is thrown to them, as the lawyers challenged the Musharraf order after March 9, our conditions will not change.

Lawyers did not just address press conferences or appear on TV talk shows (the new opiate of the Pakistani political class) although these too were necessary. They braved the heat and tramped the roads and took beatings from the police when these were unavoidable. But they still kept coming. The law was on their side but it was their tenacity which prevailed.

If instead of Nawaz Sharif it was Chief Justice Chaudhry returning from London, and if instead of the PML-N it was the legal community in the field, I have no doubt that battalions of young lawyers would have somehow come to the airport, skirting police barricades or even storming them should that have become necessary.

Anyhow, the battle lines are now more clearly drawn. The political parties are no threat to Musharraf. Indeed, to look at the Daughter of the East and the Sir John Falstaff of Pakistani politics, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, collaboration appears to be the flavour of the season. If he faces any resistance it will be from the Supreme Court, where petitions relating to his eligibility as presidential candidate await hearing, from the lawyers’ community which is promising to protest the filing of his nomination papers, and from freelance political and social activists who lent their support to the lawyers’ movement.

The focus thus returns to the rainbow coalition which drove Musharraf into a corner from March 9 onwards. Is this rainbow coalition strong enough for the next phase of the struggle? We shall have to wait and see although my hunch is that the forces of reaction (for want of a better word) are regrouping and, after Sept 10, will have regained some of their lost confidence.

Efforts are already afoot to undermine the unity of the legal community, Attorney General Qayyum the active Trojan horse in this connection. Lawyers must preserve their unity at all costs and, if I may suggest, reconsider the practice which gained ground during their movement of beating up the odd Naeem Bokhari. The time for such Jacobin tactics is past. I suspect there may also be efforts to undermine the unity of the Supreme Court. Let their lordships beware of such tactics.

Is this the end of the glorious season heralded by the events of March 9? Half my head says it is. The other half, still swept by visions of Bastilles being stormed and impregnable towers coming crashing down, says no. The next few days are going to be crucial. Even so, it was a glorious summer which, come what may, will leave its imprint behind.

Tailpiece: Only by the evening of Sept 9 when I saw roads leading to ‘Pindi/Islamabad being blocked by huge containers (a la the MQM in Karachi on May 12) was I convinced that Nawaz Sharif would be deported. I even agreed to bet a bottle of Black Label (what’s that?) to this effect. Earlier I was firmly of the opinion that Musharraf had become too weak a figure to carry out the threat of deportation. So much for high-class punditry.

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