Goodbye, Nawaz

Published July 30, 2017
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE ducks were in a row. They’ve been dragged, kicked, shot and used to beat Nawaz over the head. It has not been pretty. Hell, it couldn’t have been uglier.

So, now what?

Attack the court, blame the boys, curse fate and the stars, it doesn’t really matter. Nawaz is gone and he isn’t coming back. There’s no precedent for unwinding a Supreme Court judgement during a democratic spell and there won’t be.

Nawaz is gone.

The judgement itself is confounding, appalling in argument and scope. It is, quite nakedly, a decision in search of a reason. Why did it happen? Eventually we’ll figure it out. This isn’t a place known for keeping its secrets long.

How did it happen? The Sharifs’ bumbling defence made it possible, giving the court the weapons it needed to bring the hammer down.

But the verdict is a bullseye and the verdict will stick because it is one thing above all else: popular. Popular with the people.

And there lies the vulnerability of Nawaz.

A judgement knocking out a prime minister who was popular enough to be the favourite for re-election is more popular with the people than the prime minster who has been ousted.

How that has come to be is worth examining because there are lessons in it for the practice of politics here.

A judgement knocking out a PM who was popular enough to be the favourite for re-election is more popular with the people than the PM who has been ousted.

Hating politicians is as old as politics. In Pakistan, there’s an added edge: the urban, middle-class, educated cohort that sneers at all things politics and wears its dislike of politicians with pride.

If it weren’t for the scum, the self-serving, corrupt politicians, hoodwinking the poor and the helpless, Pakistan would be a decent place to live in with good jobs and fair opportunity – the logic is as self-evident as the conviction real.

No politician can really hope to fight that. It is the natural support base of the anti-democrats and the best a politician can hope for is his fate to never be in their hands.

But as the beast was fed, as the anger of that cohort was stoked and manipulated in the wake of Panama, Nawaz made the mistake of ignoring it.

A segment of the population that was never going to love Nawaz or any politician of his ilk, its billowing rage ought to have had alarms ringing in the PML-N.

But Nawaz didn’t pay attention and soon enough he was reduced to a public caricature: corrupt, dynastic and out of touch.

From there, he was one big, fat, easy target.

Maybe the court would have done him in anyway. Maybe the boys’ disdain had made a third exit inevitable.

But it’s a heck of a lot easier to plunge the knife in when a particular swath of the population is whipped up into a frenzy — the urban, middle-class, educated, TV-watching, social-media-consuming cohort.

From a politician’s perspective, it can seem terribly unfair. Nawaz, after all, had protected his base impressively enough to have installed himself as the favourite for consecutive terms.

Why should he, or any other politician, have to pander to another group outside his base that at best will tolerate him and at worst will regard him with unbridled hate?

But they already know the answer: the urban, middle-class, educated cohort is a potential ally of other institutions. The rage of those people can become the institutional platform for terrible things to happen to you, the politician.

Keeping that cohort onside may be the difference between continuity and decapitation. So could Nawaz have done anything differently?

The hindsight game is easy, but there were some possibilities.

A shake-up of his team, a reshuffle of the cabinet, a nod to the governance priorities of the angry cohort — things to slow down the caricature of the corrupt, dynastic, out-of-touch leader ballooning out of control.

Because Nawaz didn’t do any of that or anything at all, we have to ask: are his politics anachronistic? Is he frozen in time?

On those parallel tracks that politicians here must try and survive, the record suggests he is. Megawatts and roads appeal to the N-League base, but leave the other cohort cold.

The metrobus could have bridged the gap, but it was successfully mired in corruption allegations and lost much of its sheen.

The familiar faces that he surrounded himself with made the base comfortable, but angered the other cohort because they symbolise the past.

Maryam could have been the bridge to the other side, but the succession was approached like a coronation. To win the other cohort’s grudging respect, she needed to look like she was working her way to the top — instead a palace-bred princess appeared.

And then there was the disregard for institutions, democratic and in the executive, and the centralisation of power. It didn’t bother the N-League’s base, but for the angry cohort it symbolised corruption at the heart of the Sharif empire.

Why must everyone be their slave, why can’t they just let people work honourably and with dignity?

The more Nawaz was Nawaz, the more he thought he was doing right by his base, the angrier it made the group whose anger he did not understand and could not afford.

Busy practising an anachronistic politics, the caricature of a corrupt, dynastic, out-of-touch ruler grew and grew until it was too late.

Now, the country has a judgement that is more popular than a prime minister who may have been popular enough to win re-election.

Nawaz is gone, but the others should pay heed: practice a modern politics or suffer the same fate as the mightiest who has fallen.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2017



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