A popular epitaph

Updated 03 Jul 2020


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan’s remarks in parliament about Osama bin Laden a few days ago stirred a debate where the most efficient among his party loyalists found it impossible to defend him. The gaffe was just too big, cried out the detractors, who have found little reason to change the rather low view they have held of the PTI chief all along.

Even his biggest supporters in the press corps — who would be found inventing all kinds of explanations to counter the opposition’s assaults — could at best put it down to a slip of the tongue. Which was rather disappointing, for this was an excellent opportunity for everyone to discuss how much respect we Pakistanis afforded to someone from among the famous company we enjoyed over decades.

Prime Minister Khan, inadvertently, called OBL a ‘shaheed’, to book the prime time slot on channels and social media forums for the next few days. It was only a bigger dilemma, the one that required trained Pakistani minds to think up scenarios of a government without Mr Khan and/or his PTI, which finally pushed the shaheeds into the background. The survivors for once snatched the attention from the martyrs.

These are not exactly the times for so-called neutral observers to write paragraphs that can be interpreted as favourable to the ‘kaptaan’. The trend is to write about his failures, his unfulfilled promise and about yet one more betrayal of the people by a leader, lest these predictions about his fall come true. Likewise, in a given circle, it would be a very unpopular statement to make if it was to be said that the Pakistani prime minister’s remarks about OBL might for once have represented the sentiment of a large number of his countrymen.

There are countless distressed souls wandering in this vast desert looking for the right ideology. Who is a ‘shaheed’ and who is not?

What would life be without its slips and the small clues these slips drop along the way? I would venture a bold guess and ‘claim’ that the hasty honorific just lavished on OBL sahib by our prime minister reflected the feeling of millions of Pakistanis who have as yet not been able to distinguish between one individual going down at the hands of foreign squads on Pakistani territory from another one taken out by another set of raiders from abroad. They lack the facility and clarity of, say, a Haqqani in choosing the right foreigners to align with at the right time.

There are countless distressed souls wandering in this vast desert looking for the right ideology. Who is a shaheed and who is not? The debate is endless, but those holding the gun seem to be winning this one too.

The opponents of the popular shaheed theory on the right of the political landscape are struggling to regain ground. The shaheeds of the left in Pakistan, exterminated as they might have been on the basis of borrowed, extremist foreign notions of religious purification or international conspiracy, do not command the kind of respect they once did.

For the first time in history, there are actually jokes about certain political leaders who are pronounced as ‘living’ and still ruling hearts. As you observe the 43d anniversary of the coup against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in two days’ time, you could mark it with a solemn recognition of the fast accumulation of those martyred by foreign designs on the other side.

This is symptomatic of the Pakistani truth, the Pakistani confusion, if you like. There are huge empty spaces for new actors to occupy and this is where the PTI has come in and done its politics, at a distance from the old players.

Mr Imran Khan has revelled in this space created by the confusion about who is who. He was able to create an option, a seemingly safe one, that could guarantee his followers some violence-free time. That’s his territory. He mustn’t leave it egged on by any false notions about having found new ideals and new ground to stand on.

The opponents are trying to attack the prime minister. Mr Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is passionate in his pleas as he tries to separate and dissociate Prime Minister Khan’s shaheed from his illustrious mother who went down bravely, refusing to cave in to a new oppressive order. The PPP leader is aided by varied levels of enthusiasm by other opposition politicians, which has been a problem in the way of a joint, strong and sustained onslaught on the PTI government.

The opposition effort against the prime minister could actually have been much better coordinated. Its attacks have been sporadic, and quite often it seems that there’s a thought gap between the two biggest parties, the PML-N and PPP. This makes little sense. At this particular moment, for instance, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, whose efforts have the honourable prime minister mocking him, could well have liked some extra support from the PML-N stalwarts.

It’s a wonder of Pakistani politicians that despite a somewhat loose opposition, the discussion about the future of Mr Imran Khan continues to touch new intensity levels. His own government’s simple follies are ‘seen’ by so many that there is little need for any clever revelations of PTI misrule by the opposition here.

The press, the channels and social media are replete with questions — and in some rare cases answers — about the ability and eligibility of the Imran Khan brand of rule. There are these discussions about the minus-one formula and about the necessity of having a political heir to Mr Khan.

Not just that, those with bigger intelligence and shorter tempers are once again out to sell their ideas about a technocrat government, a presidential system, and whatever they can think of in their moments of desperation. It’s a puzzle that is not going to yield to easy mathematics, but when you do your calculations and your dislodging and rearranging, keep in mind the countless Pakistanis who were cultivated in these vast political spaces by the current prime minister of Pakistan. You can’t simply hand them over their shaheeds and ask them to leave.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2020