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Emperor forever

Updated July 14, 2017

REMEMBER the story about the emperor who ended up parading around without any clothes on thinking that he was dressed in the finest wares the world had to offer? On the surface it is a tale of great hubris, of how those with power are forever convinced that they have an eternal right to rule. I suspect most readers at the present moment in time would put our sitting prime minister top of that list.

There is, however, another aspect to the emperor fable that I believe is of greater import. Remember that the tale ends with his subjects sniggering at the emperor’s humiliation, but the latter is not forced to abdicate his throne despite clearly being unfit to even manage his own person, let alone rule the land. His subjects enjoy a laugh and then presumably go back to the drudgery of their lives with no pretence to ever challenging the emperor’s (divine) right to rule.

Now this is an ending that Nawaz Sharif cannot expect. Virtually all of the institutions and voices that constitute ‘public opinion’ are arguing that he no longer has any legitimate claim to be prime minister. Since we have no independent method of ascertaining the views of the silent majority that is watching the whole episode play out on television, we can only assume that this majority is not about to come out on the streets to defend the prime minister and ensure that he sees out his full five years in office.

Only those with a death wish criticise the players that ‘public opinion’ never names.

A lot of commentary over the past few days has suggested that a resignation — forced or otherwise — is good for our fledgling democracy. That is similar to what most ‘expert’ opinion argued when Yousuf Raza Gilani was unceremoniously disqualified from the National Assembly exactly five years ago. ‘Public opinion’ was more or less the same when Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were dumped out of office twice each between 1990 and 1999.

If one wants to go even further back in time, there is the overthrow of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) by a general who apparently acted because the country’s first elected prime minister butchered democratic norms in the 1977 elections. Later on the general added ‘corruption’ and ‘betrayal of Islam’ to the list of charges.

That’s a long list of elected leaders — no matter how flawed our electoral process — to have been dumped under the pretext that the system be made more democratic and responsive to the need of the Pakistani public. Surely things should have gotten better by now?

Of course each successive episode only serves to confirm the pessimism: things just don’t seem to get better, and there is only ever one explanation — the damn politicians!

I wrote only two weeks ago that countless mainstream politicians share the blame for the elitism, unresponsiveness and downright oppressiveness of the political system. But a system is called a system precisely because it is constituted by more than a few hundred politicians.

In this country we are allowed to bash politicians, call them out for their corruption, remove them from office, and in ZAB’s case even execute them. But the system at large? We are fearful of even naming its constituent parts, let alone calling it to account.

To return to the fable about the emperor’s clothes; we might be able to crack some jokes about, or for those with a death wish, criticise the players that ‘public opinion’ never names, but we eventually go back to the drudgery of our lives, waiting for the next piece of breaking news (read: head of the next politician to roll) and the news cycle to be completed.

It was thus refreshing that a somewhat washed-up politician broke ranks and added a bit of spice to our lives. Javed Hashmi’s rhetorical question about why generals and judges never have to face accountability was very much out of the blue, and predictably didn’t retain the attention of TV anchors and newspaper editors for long. But that won’t take away from the fact that, amidst all of the noise, his was the most important comment of all.

And let’s not forget that the Raymond Davis ‘revelations’ that captured our attention just a couple of weeks ago have also predictably been relegated to the dustbin of history. Of course the book is hardly worth the pages it was written on but surely the allegations on those pages against the highest functionaries of the state should be interrogated further in public? General Pervez Musharraf? The Hamoodur Rahman Commission? Clearly the ‘rule of law’ and ‘accountability’ does not apply to everyone who is part of the system.

As the saying goes: iss hamam me sub nange hain. Or am I not allowed to say that?

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2017