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Captain’s innings?

July 25, 2018

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CRICKETING metaphors have been unavoidable in the run-up to today’s election, not only on account of Imran Khan’s storied past on the field a long time ago but because of his own penchant for deploying them.

Given that, the question inevitably arises: is this supposed exercise in democracy in effect a fixed match? Furthermore, how biased are the umpires? Was Mian Nawaz Sharif clean-bowled or caught out? Or was it a less clear case of leg before wicket? And, perhaps most important of all, will the announcement of the result be followed by some kind of a pitch invasion?

There is at least one respect, though, in which the analogies don’t hold. It is unknown in cricket for team members to switch sides on the eve of a match. Each significant defection from the PML-N to the PTI has been greeted as the fall of a wicket. But is it really cricket?

Not much changed after Musharraf’s exit.

Well, no. It’s politics. And in Pakistan, party loyalty has seldom been a distinguishing feature of the political sphere. Hitching one’s wagons to a rising star has always been par for the course in cases where self-interest is the only ideology. The blame in this context should not be attached exclusively to the aspiring (and, in this season, perspiring) candidates: a substantial proportion can be ascribed to the entities that refuse to bat an eyelid when influential locals seek entrance, offering a perfunctory pledge of allegiance and the prospect of an easier win in particular constituencies.

It has always been thus in Pakistan, and partly accounts for the undoing of the PPP during its first stint in power. That historic episode proceeded from the nation’s first general elections almost 48 years ago.

I was far too young to vote in the 1970 elections, but remember well the excitement that preceded the novel experiment with democracy 23 years after the country’s inception. The popular excitement was palpable, and the results bore out the prospect of drastic change after a dozen years of military dictatorship. I was allowed to stay up to watch them rolling in on PTV, which stayed on air through the night, interspersing electoral announcements with a plethora of local and international entertainment.

The nearly clean sweep in East Pakistan by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League was somewhat less remarkable than the PPP’s successes across Punjab and Sindh. The umpires’ refusal to abide by the popular verdict — which afforded Mujib a clear parliamentary majority, even without any seats in West Pakistan — led to tears, bloodshed on a horrendous scale, and the birth of a new nation.

Yet what remained of Pakistan also experienced a rebirth of sorts with its first democratically elected head of government, even if he was someone who shared responsibility for the derogation from democracy that necessitated Bangladesh. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was also responsible for further grievous errors along the way, even if his administration wasn’t a complete disaster.

But by 1977 the nation was in turmoil, notably as a consequence of the impression of widespread rigging during the nation’s second general election. That unrest is particularly useful to remember in the current context, even if there was considerable malice aforethought among some of Bhutto’s leading opponents at the time. The panicked prime minister kowtowed to the then relatively small religious lobby and, worse still, introduced martial law to restore order in the bigger cities.

During a meeting with him early that year, my father — a journalist who had been striving to facilitate a political settlement between the government and its main secular rivals — noted that in the circumstances it was somewhat gratifying that the military was still behind him. “What do you think I’ve been doing all these years?” Bhutto shot back. “Making a monkey of myself?”

He was overthrown and imprisoned within months. Two years later, he was dead. And the forces that gripped Pakistan back then have never quite let go. In the 11-year interregnum between the fortuitous end of Ziaul Haq’s atrocious regime and Pervez Musharraf’s coup, the identity of the arbiters of power was never much of a secret, even if the initial attempt to ensconce Nawaz Sharif in power came a cropper.

In terms of string-pulling, not much changed after Musharraf’s exit — until lately, when curbs on freedom of expression have surreptitiously become a lot more stringent.

The support Imran Khan has built up over the decades is understandable. There’s the charm of a new face, albeit no longer young, and the prospect of some kind of change, plus the usual anti-corruption theme — albeit alongside a great many deplorable predilections.

This is in all likelihood his last chance for a captain’s innings, albeit at the helm of a coalition, and with too many discredited ‘electables’ on his team, and with the power of the umpires undiminished. Let’s see how it goes.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2018