IN the good old days, when local filmmakers genuinely suspected that their merchandise included objectionable material, they would often promise the audience a new release on a certain date ‘subject to clearance from the censors’. ‘Ba shart-i-censor’, said the familiar Urdu line and the connoisseurs would be left craving a half-awake scrutiny board nodding its approval.
The opposition parties in the country would have us believe that they are not beholden to anyone clearing the agenda for a protest movement against the Imran Khan government. Given this, the long wait for their next big attraction is something that the Zardaris, the Sharifs and the maulanas could ill afford. So frequently has the promise been made that some of the more knowledgeable among the audience are already calling it a scam, the unprecedented sight of a Sharif wading through Karachi roads searching for some Zardari hospitality notwithstanding. The boots are in the water. It must be wartime. Only the outcome of all the nervous energy oozing from the opposition stalwarts on either side of the recent deluge doesn’t show any encouraging signs for anti-government sympathisers so far.
The scene where Shahbaz Sharif comes knocking at the door of the PPP leadership is somewhat different from what it was a few weeks ago. Then, in a dry Lahore, Shahbaz sahib was too ill to immediately attend to the PPP wayfarer, looking for some reinforcing companionship. Now, as someone with the ball in his court, Shahbaz sahib was just too overwhelmed by the assignment to care about giving the scene his signature stamp.
This time the former chief minister of Punjab, known for stealing a march over even his most formidable competitors, was willing to play a cameo role and was allowed a few nostalgic minutes in the water in a city recently inundated by rain. He couldn’t even find time to give a quick tutorial to someone crooning Akalay na jaana although, as the film reviewer would have told us, it was perfect for the situation. All the polite guest did was to repeat what his hosts repeatedly say about the biased federal government and its cruel policies to starve Sindh of funding.
There have already been far too many slip-ups by anti-government political forces to inspire instant popular backing.
Between Karachi and Lahore, the opposition could be a forerunner of greater hustle in the near future. The country could soon be passing through a period where it would be difficult for a political party to harbour thoughts of immediate parleys with kingmakers from the establishment over unity in their ranks. The latest round of monsoon meetings may well result in some kind of forward-looking partnership from the opposition’s point of view. But there have already been far too many slip-ups by anti-government political forces to inspire instant popular backing. The mistakes means that much more spadework.
Perhaps the opposition parties were always waiting for the less muggy and more relaxed climes of September. If so, they didn’t need to honk and beat the drum of an impending people’s movement against Prime Minister Imran Khan. Ideally, they could have used the interim for a headcount of the workers or, if that was supposed to be too brief an exercise for some, trying to convince others to join them if and when their all-powerful leaders ordered them to march for their causes.
Before Eidul Azha, it was Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari who had announced that a ‘joint’ opposition would launch a protest campaign aimed at shaking up the Khan government — after Eid. How long after, was not discussed but reasonable minds presumed that things would start falling into place a few days after the festival. Now it seems that BBZ was guilty of promoting the protest movement as the ultimate opposition action whereas in reality it was only half-done.
It took the opposition longer to fix things in their tent than it does a greedy Eid meat stocker to clean up the contents of his giant-size freezer. There was an obvious gulf that the leadership could not quite rectify, even with temporary stuff, to create a make-believe alliance of groups with a few things in common. This breach must have been bigger than the one faced by joint opposition aspirants in the past or it would have been overcome.
Alliances must be harder to strike in the post-information revolution age. Topics today are far more openly discussed than previously, but with the expanding prism of views, consensus is often harder to achieve. It would be tougher still in a country where the battle against old taboos is far from over. In fact, it has only just begun.
But times are changing and omissions today are all the more glaring. Like this current case where a news story, with all its flaws and questions, has been paraded before various opposition parties for reaction, without inspiring too many remarks initially.
In the olden times it would have been possible for a joint opposition front to ignore the insinuating parallels sought to be drawn between a powerful ex-serviceman’s rise in the ranks and the alleged fast advancement made by business run by his family members. A Pakistani opposition in the past could have tried to run an alliance over and above such delicate points. Today, some kind of reaction is repeatedly sought and finally recorded even if it takes many days of pestering by the more persistent and the ever annoying individuals on the margins of the media.
Today, a minister feels compelled to tell his countrymen that the person concerned will soon offer his version of the story in response to what has been reported. In the decades gone by, silence would have sufficed in such situations. Now, the minister sahib apparently had little choice but to expose himself to further queries.
It is the issues which can no longer be kept out of the discourse that will shape the ideology of the new opposition alliance with the most successful establishment party in the history of the country at the centre of it.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2020