If someone were to travel back in time to 2017 and tell a chief that in five years’ time Sheikh Rashid would be arrested after having fallen foul of the establishment for the offence of insulting Bilawal, they would be laughed at. If that someone was to add that Moonis Elahi had parted ways with the establishment and forced his father to give up the ties upon which stands his very existence, they would be referred to a psychiatrist. Whilst being escorted out, if they were to shout that Fawad Chaudhry had become an anti-establishment hero, they would risk being locked up.
There are several weather vanes in Pakistani politics. All of them have traditionally been a portent of which way the winds of favour are blowing from Pindi. Over the past decades, Sheikh Rashid, Fawad Chaudhry and the Chaudhrys of Gujrat have evolved from being just simple instruments exhibiting the direction of the establishment’s desires into technologically advanced weather balloons. They have proudly and consistently foretold the incoming pressure systems and have even gauged seismic activity. Sheikh Rashid has built an entire career out of pretending to have gone to school with each incoming army chief. Fawad Chaudhry was the preferred bully, defending every indefensible action of the hybrid regime. The Chaudhrys of Gujrat have constantly enjoyed the kind of power which comes only when you point in the direction of the Pindi wind: the type that is free of accountability. They will routinely do exactly what the boys want, or what they think they want. When in doubt, they will hurriedly turn up to a garrison and ask them what exactly they want. Then they will explain to everyone that their actions were because it’s what the establishment wanted.
Having set up this metaphor in detail, I would like to come to the point: why have these weather balloons suddenly stopped working? Why are their instrument clusters malfunctioning? Why is Sheikh Rashid smoking cigars in handcuffs? Why is Fawad Chaudhry having to endure the same treatment he so steadfastly defended as being deserved when it was being meted out to everyone else?
It isn’t that the political weather vanes aren’t working.
Moonis is knee-deep in compromise, a multitude of money-laundering investigations snaking up the works where the FIA alleges the existence of layers upon layers of transactions that begin with unexplained money and end up in the account of an Elahi. His electorate is a small niche within a division, cobbled together with enormous state largesse. Facilitators of the alleged Elahi laundromat, who supposedly feature as the individual layers in the web of transactions, have gone from basic public employment to becoming secretaries of government, ascending like the Elahis have done themselves. So how dare Moonis defy the doctrinaires?
The answer is a simple one. He sees his choice being between possibility and inevitability. With so many volunteers for the establishment’s game of thrones, his family’s chips are worthless. With Imran Khan, there is a possibility that he survives within the hierarchy, with a chance to pounce on the remnants, if there are any, once Imran calls it a day. Or when it’s called for him.
It isn’t that the weather vanes aren’t working. They are doing what they are best at: pointing in the direction the most powerful wind is blowing. It’s just that for the first time, that wind is not blowing from Pindi.
People have speculated about how the establishment long wanted to extract the ‘sheen’ of Shehbaz from PML Noon as the original project, leaving Maryam’s ‘meem’ behind to principled inconsequence. Instead, we see the PML-N come around yet again as the original king’s party, a nod to our unending political opportunism. Maryam, the great hope, has been reduced to shilling for the same old status quo her father worked for.
After 2017, Nawaz Sharif’s promised us his politics were like a cracked walnut: after many tries, the hard shell had finally given way to a sumptuous middle-of-principles. Instead, we see it again as the peeled onion: with each layer taken off by the same old trauma of pro-establishment positions; there appears to be yet another layer of the exact same thing — so predictable that it makes your eyes water.
How would things have been if the self-styled sher of Punjab roared for anything other than self-interest after naming names in Gujranwala. The political chessboard may have been so different. As it stands, the board is populated only by pawns. Except that the Imran Khan pawn has reached the other end of the board, and is about to take on a more powerful form. What it turns into is anyone’s guess, but it has seen the edge of the board, and the abyss that lies beyond it.
Meanwhile, the original anti-establishment lion, the PPP now has a prime ministerial candidate in Bilawal. Given their electoral numbers, how this is even remotely possible without an overt declaration of the party’s covert marriage with the establishment remains an interesting development yet to occur. After having removed bluster from the PDM with surgical precision at every moment it threatened to actually make a difference when in opposition to the hybrid PTI-Bajwa government, the PPP got what it always wanted: power without an election and the rapid sorting of its accountability worries soon thereafter. Every step of the way has been a win for their politics — absent as always have been democracy and good governance.
Nawaz Sharif once said he stood for principle when everyone asked him to take a step forward. When he did so against dictatorship, he said he looked back and saw no one standing behind him. He was left alone and went into exile.
Today, those who stood for principle when Nawaz asked them to stand with him in Gujranwala, look back and find themselves alone. Nawaz is busy trying his boots on in London and his daughter is busy standing behind barbed wire whilst addressing her party indoors; explaining to us how nepotism in her political party is actually because of the love shown by the people.
پہنچی وہیں پہ خاک جہاں کا خمیر تھا
(The ashes ended up where they first arose.)
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2023
Dear visitor, the comments section is undergoing an overhaul and will return soon.