Same old Nizam

25 Sep 2020

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

I DON’T know how true the details of Nizam Saqqa’s real-life story are, but every era since the legend was born in kind-hearted Humayun’s kingdom has had its NS to be momentarily proud of.

The Mughal chroniclers wrote that Saqqa, meaning the one who earned his bread by supplying consumers water in his goatskin bag, was allowed to enjoy royalty for two days as a token of gratitude for rescuing the emperor thus saving the nascent sultanate from an early end.

Two days … Like someone who has been placed on the pedestal briefly, and then pulled down violently to a life filled with commonplace compromises. The transient nature of it all must come as a shock to at least some of those who were until a few hours earlier celebrating the crowning of someone they thought could finally fit their description of a leader from among the people.

Some of these shocks are too frequent to have a surprise element to them. Quite similar to the case of audiences who know what the predictable director of a horror film is building towards but who have to fake bewilderment and a terrified look to prove they still retain their essential senses.

It is important that the emissary has got the message right.

We know Pakistani politicians are always keen to sound out senior army officers in the country’s establishment. We know they can be summoned or can send an emissary on their own to a meeting with the general sahib. In the latest instance, former Sindh governor Mohammad Zubair called on the army chief days before an opposition multiparty conference (MPC) was to be organised and at which Mr Nawaz Sharif was to roar like never before.

Mr Zubair is one of the people who are least likely to lose their poise under pressure. He can stay unruffled and doesn’t have to wear the stern look of Mr Sharif’s past connections to the power generators such as Chaudhry Nisar. But already there are signs of sides to this story which are quite willing to spill over into the public domain raising critical questions which could reduce the latest democratic spurt with Mr Sharif on the throne to a mere replay of the Nizam Saqqa episode.

The details say politics was discussed — of course, this had to be so since it is what Mr Zubair specialises in. There are the usual noises of just how we have ‘come’ to this stage where politicians are so dependent on hints and clues from the military commander to chart their future course. That’s an old refrain and if anything, it seems that the counter argument that it is the politicians who invited the army to intervene is being voiced more strongly and with greater contempt for those asking for protection.

The more immediate concern is about the course Mr Sharif took after his agent had returned from whatever guesses he could collect during his mission. Would the PML-N leader come out with the same speech that made him famous in the annals of the democrats in Pakistan if his reading of the signals from the top had been different? Or could there have been a more measured approach by Mian Sahib where perhaps the need to know about these secret calls by Mr Zubair might never have arisen?

Indeed, the naughty souls who have been warning the opposition leaders against putting too much trust in each other have another opportunity to strike. With a wink and a mock grin they can ask whether the PML-N would have actually taken part in the all-party meet had the signals been differently interpreted. After all, the PML-N had shown remarkable reluctance in joining just a meeting of top-tier opposition leaders, leave alone readily committing to any collective initiative to trouble the government.

The interpretation of the signals is important. It is important that the emissary has got the message right and not been too excited or overtly disappointed by what he sensed. The most crucial things in the equation remain the same, the language is subject to evolution. It is not clear if all the politicians here understand the modern writing on the wall and thus may be liable to get the signals jumbled up.

In more recent times, we have had old practitioners of the art of destabilising governments leading their processions to Islamabad with much fanfare. It was later realised that what they mistook for a siege of the capital was actually a mass reflection of their marooning in the politics of the country.

One of these veterans was apparently so disheartened that he cancelled all future plans to disrupt and took early retirement. Another went to the other extreme and is fighting a most agitated fight for his survival. He is too blunt to care for any subtle signs that the politicians, in fact Pakistanis generally, are addicted to.

When Mian Sahib raised the red flag of freedom and emancipation at the MPC on Sunday, the reassuring nods it was greeted with had its origins not in one source. There were many who greeted it as a most-sought slogan of a country beset perennially with power imbalances. These ‘many’ included a large number of more recent converts to the Nawaz Sharif brand, those who have been compelled by his current situation and lack of other credible options to side with him. That’s quite a vocal group that the PML-N or the Sharif family has been able to create around their core.

There is another, maybe much bigger, original group of PML-N supporters that could be heard greeting the latest Sharif speech using their old code breaker. To their mind, Mian Sahib has to be saying what he was saying after he had sensed there was at least a sympathetic audience for his lines in the establishment. Yes at least a sympathetic ear to begin with if not an out-and-out patron.

It could well be that a new tutorial in reading the code must go beyond simply asking over a few politicians and trying to teach them modern signals. After decades of practice, a whole population is eligible to enrol in the course.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2020