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Of messiahs and all


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Zulfiqar Mirza – AP

The major league

It was quite a sight watching many otherwise reasonable looking and sounding gentlemen who had been at the forefront of condemning at the drop of hat suddenly turn around and applaud the animated former minister after his explosive press conference on August 28.

Such somersaults are certainly not a rarity in this godforsaken republic. An edgy nation well known for always dreaming of a figurative messiah and a saviour riding in (in slow-motion) from a hazy horizon on a white horse/camel with a sword in one hand, a hangman’s noose in the other and the holy book spread out across his heart; or in the case of Zulfiqar Mirza, on his head!

Not that these dreams about benevolent strong men emerging to deliver justice and honour to the teeming millions have remained to be mere fantasies. Far from it.

From Ayub Khan to Z A. Bhutto to even the dreadful Ziaul Haq, all emerged as saviours.

After imposing the country’s first Martial Law, Ayub Khan was hailed by the majority of Pakistanis for rescuing the country from corrupt bureaucrats, squabbling politicians and ‘dangerous’ Bengali, Baloch, Sindhi and Pushtun nationalists.

The initial hailing of a relieved public only fattened Ayub’s messiah complex, so much so that by the late 1960s the messiah had truly lost touch with reality.

For example, in 1968 even when thousands of students and workers had begun a concentrated protest movement against the cronyism and corruption that had become the mainstay of the man’s government, Ayub decided to spend millions of Rupees to celebrate his regime’s ‘Decade of progress.’

Ayub’s fall mainly at the hands of those who’d hailed him as a saviour set a cyclic precedent that has continued to this day. Take the example of Z A. Bhutto for instance.

A truly popular leader, Bhutto was carried into power on the shoulders of millions of West Pakistanis, expecting him to perform a series of economic, political and social miracles.

Some six years later (in 1977) the same messiah was walking towards the gallows.

Did the country erupt with shame and anger at this atrocity engineered by a wily usurper, General Ziaul Haq? Nope. Why should it? After all here was a new messiah who, unlike Ayub and Bhutto, was waving the holy book in our faces calling it the country’s new constitution.

Those who were convinced that the secular despotism of Ayub and the left-liberal populism of Bhutto had failed to meet the hopes of Pakistan’s Muslim majority, were mighty impressed by Zia’s tough Islamist talk.

They were convinced that it was on his back they could piggyback their way towards making Pakistan an Islamic state.

Of course, apart from imposing certain ‘Islamic laws’ based on some puritanical strains and interpretations of the faith - in the process not only alienating the country’s minority religions, but many other Islamic sects as well - and actually institutionalizing corruption to keep his backers in the agencies, military, business community and feudal circles well fed, Zia soon fell from grace.

His unpopular dictatorship was only held afloat by the wayward ways of a divided opposition, relentless state repression and, of course, millions of Dollars and Riyals that kept pouring in from the coffers of the United States and Saudi Arabia to keep him at the forefront of a convoluted ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan against the already struggling Soviet forces.

In the end it was left to the state to finance and organize a momentous funeral for the once-upon-a-time messianic hope when he fell from the skies after an explosion in his plane saw it burst into flames over Bahawalpur in 1988.

Today the only thing one remembers of him are the seeds he sowed of whose poisonous trees and fruits we are still reaping and, of course, the many jokes that were cracked in his lifetime about his supposed piety.

But this did not stop another military man from getting entrapped by the messiah complex. And how could he not, especially in a country always on the lookout for miraculous saviours.

General Parvaz Musharraf’s popularity ratings in the first three years of his dictatorship (1999-2003) remained well over 60 percent. Surprisingly, this time around very few Pakistanis actually knew as to why they were hailing this messiah.

Here was a man who didn’t know his right eye (liberalism) from his left (propping-up Islamists). Believing he could carry on this cock-eyed charade, he ended up digging his own hole when the military’s own creations (the jihadis and the radicalization of society), sent him spinning to earth, committing one blunder after another.

In the end after facing an all-time low in his popularity ratings, this self-claimed eternal commando was forced to resign and go into exile, abused and cursed even by those who had so proudly voted for him in a so-called referendum in 2002. As this country continues to look for, prop-up and then discard messiahs, very few it seems realize that messiahs fail because they are only our own exaggerated and mythical projections of justice, good governance and respect.

The mini-messiahs

Interestingly, whereas the major political parties seem to have sensed this and have started to avoid over-promising and getting trapped in the self-destructive messiah complex, Pakistanis have turned to certain minnows in this respect.

These are the mini-messiahs who arrive thinking they can become another Z A. Bhutto but usually end up in a limbo or worse, suffering from a rather sour case of delusion.

But it’s entirely not their fault. After all there is always going to be many young Pakistanis propping up a potential messiah, just like uploading an exiting new song on their Ipods only to be discarded and replaced by a newer tune.

Let’s profile a few well known cases of these mini-messiahs …

Asghar Khan A former Air Martial who turned against the Ayub dictatorship, Ashgar Khan became an important clog in the progressive/democratic movement against the Ayub dictatorship.

For a while in the late 1960s, Asghar Khan’s popularity was at par with that of Z A. Bhutto’s.

Asghar reached a popularity peak in 1969. But Bhutto, with the backing of an emergent mass party, a well articulated ideology and a clearly-defined manifesto, eclipsed Khan in the 1970 election.

Asghar Khan’s line in the election on the other hand was simply ‘clean politics,’ but this didn’t mean much to an excitable electorate.

Just when it seemed Khan’s bubble had burst, he was propped-up once again, this time by the right-wing opposition alliance (the PNA) that went into the 1977 polls against Bhutto’s PPP.

He then led a mass movement against Bhutto that triggered Bhutto’s departure but at the same time put the country under its third martial law.

Though a democrat and secular, Asghar had joined a struggle led by right-wing religious parties against Bhutto and then he is also accused of being the man who actually invited the military to take over in July 1977.

Though Khan (through his own party, the Pakistan Thereek-i-Istaqlal) remained in politics till about the early 1990s, he was never again given the luxury of enjoying the saviour status.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed A life-long member of the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI), Qazi remained to be just another politician during most of his career in JI.

The JI was a staunchly centralised and elitist Islamist party whose leadership and support mainly came from the conservative urban middle-class segments.

In 1987, at age 50, Qazi was elected to head JI.

As the country’s working and peasant classes stuck with populist parties like the PPP, the growing urban bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie (that had began springing up during the Zia dictatorship), gallivanted towards moderate right-wing parties like Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

Qazi soon began manoeuvring JI towards more mass-level politics so it could at least appeal to the rising political ambitions of the new bourgeoisie.

Thus, before the 1993 elections, Qazi put the JI forward as a third, more ‘cleaner and incorruptible’ alternative to the PPP and PML-N.

Through an expensive election campaign, Qazi advertised himself as a saviour so much so that many commentators were sure that JI would be able to win a large number of seats.

But, alas, out of about the 300 seats that it contested in the 1993 elections, Qazi’s JI only managed to win three seats!

Qazi retired from politics in 2008.

Murtaza Bhutto Riddled and wounded by a series of ethnic clashes and operation clean-ups between after 1986, Karachi and Sindh seemed to have had enough of parties like PPP and MQM.

As MQM went under the gun of the military and the Rangers in the early and mid-1990s, the PPP’s two governments under Benazir Bhutto began wobbling from corruption charges as well as concentrated efforts by Zia’s remnants in the intelligence agencies to topple her.

Just before the 1993 elections, many newspapers in Karachi and Sindh began running heightened reports about the return of Benazir’s brother, Murtaza Bhutto who’d been in exile ever since 1979.

Benazir at once began hinting that certain agencies were trying to block her return to power by propping up Murtaza.

She might have been right because though Murtaza had been named by the Zia regime in various cases of terrorism (through his clandestine organization the Al-Zulfiqar), his return to Pakistan (after thirteen years) was rather smooth.

Nevertheless, judicial complications delayed his return but he promptly formed his own PPP faction (from Syria) and (according to newspapers of the time) was ‘gaining popularity in Sindh and Punjab due to his anti-Zardari and anti-corruption stance.’

Well, Murtaza’s faction only managed to win a single seat in the 1993 elections and Murtaza’s messianic bubble had burst even before he finally returned to the country in 1994.

Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry An imposing but apparently reserved Chief Justice who got into a tussle with General Parvez Musharraf. In 2007, Musharraf asked him to resign only to set alight a movement led by the lawyers to reinstate the CJ.

The movement was then entered by both big and small opposition political parties. But it wasn’t until it was popularly adopted by the private electronic media that the deposed CJ began being moulded into a messianic figure who would not only cleanse the judiciary, but also herald in a political and economic revolution!

The movement was initially centered around liberal and democratic lawyers and ideals, but it soon took a rightwards turn when the largely right-wing electronic media entered the fray, mainly reflecting the growing reactionary tendencies emerging within the urban middle-classes.

The CJ was reinstated after Musharraf’s departure in 2008 but the messianic sheen of the movement is now peeling off giving way to a more pragmatic approach.

Imran Khan The ultimate messianic figure, this former Pakistan cricket captain and philanthropist entered politics in 1996 with a brand new party, the Pakistan Threreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

Many observers have compared Imran with Asghar Khan: A clean politician but without the tact of organizing a winnable political party.

Imran entered the fray as a messianic figure right from the start but his party only managed to win a single seat in the 1997 and 2002 elections.

But just when it seemed his career was as good as over, he was embraced by the electronic media, an event that gave him the platform to re-emerge as a popular figure among the country’s new generation of young urban middle-class Pakistanis.

Mixing renegade right-wing ideals with bygone leftist sloganeering, Khan is now being hailed as the saviour that Pakistan needs.

However, parties like the PML-N and MQM have alleged that Khan is being propped-up by the ISI and by the agency’s supposed mouthpieces in the electronic media so he could electorally challenge the mainstream parties that the military and the ISI feel can threaten their ‘strategic’ interests.

They also suggest that Khan is being used as a pawn by those segments of the agencies who want to drive a hard bargain with the US on the issue of aid.

It is yet to be seen whether Imran Khan is able to transform his messianic appeal into actual votes.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi A staunch PPP member and then the current government’s foreign minister, Qureshi suddenly resigned from his post due to the Raymond Davis incident that saw an American spook being allowed to leave after shooting down two Pakistanis in Lahore.

Qureshi held an emotional press conference accusing his party of bowing down to American pressure. This act turned Qureshi into a messianic figure - for exactly a week or so.

As young urbanites excitedly began dreaming of the emergence of a handsome, honourable and clean politician who can challenge the likes of Zardari and Nawaz, evidence began pointing towards his gullibility to exploitation by the politicised sections of the ISI.

Though refuting the accusations, there was no refuting the fact that in a matter of weeks Qureshi, who’d began imagining himself as a popular future prime minister, was found dangling in a limbo, largely forgotten and joked about and not knowing where his future political prospects lay.

Zulfiqar Mirza Even more curious is the case of this PPP leader. An animated Sindh minister in the PPP-led government in Sindh, Mirza was also known to be close to President Zardari.

Nevertheless, he turned the ongoing political tussle between PPP and MQM in Sindh into something more personal, loud-mouthing his way to notoriety, especially among urbanites.

Interestingly though, his recent press conference in which he accused the MQM of murder and terrorism, suddenly turned many anti-PPP (even some pro-PPP) and anti-MQM youngsters into hailing him as ‘saviour of Sindh and Karachi!’

Many of them were the same folks who’d earlier denounced him as a ‘scoundrel,’ ‘drunk’ and ‘uncouth.’

Thus, Mirza, at least for some months, can now enjoy the status of being perhaps the most unlikely of political messiahs of them all.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

Comments (47) Closed

Shirin Aug 29, 2011 05:27pm
Seriously, everybody everywhere is craving a meassiah. After all, how else did Obama win election? Wasn't he THE MAN. And before him, wasn't Bush Jr, the messiah who was going to bring democracy - God given right of the people - to heathens and take US back to its Christian root. Now that both Democrats and Republicans thoroughly disgusted and defeated, isn't Tea Party hailing Rick Perry, Bachmann, Palin, and Ron Paul as the next Messiah who will save America. Sigh! I guess that's why fairy tales are timeless. It is a human craving to seek THE MAN who will rescue them from misery and into the arms of wealthy employers.
yawar Aug 29, 2011 06:06pm
Dear Shirin, in most places people look for hardworking human beings, unlike in Pakistan where we are always looking for unrealistic super heroes and warriors.
M. Asghar Aug 29, 2011 06:12pm
This litany of names of messiahs is not fundamental for a conutry and its people, but its diffent institutions are and here the Apex Court through its suo motu actions is playing a decisive role for their solidification. In spite of all sorts of odds it is moving in the right direction.
Agha Ata Aug 29, 2011 06:31pm
Mere magic shadow show Phantom figures come and go !
Razzak Aug 29, 2011 06:41pm
All Mirza has managed to do in his press conference is to prove that he is conspirator like his mentor.
Tanvir Aug 29, 2011 07:58pm
Same old history and critique, but nothing to help Pakistanis in solving their problems. At least who ever came with the guts to lead Pakistan deserve the credit for trying their best. If they did good, they earned the honor or being loved by Pakistanis; and if they did not, they deserved the punishment the received. One never knows, that there may be a diamond lying among the dirty stones.
The Right Left Aug 29, 2011 08:22pm
Wahtever name you want to call, what people are looking for is good governance with basic civic and social services that any government is required to provide. A group of politicians who can deliver these from local, provincial and national level will be looked upon as messiahs, compared to teh current crop of corrupt, self serving feudals. Paksitan is changing, albiet very painfully and a lot of bloodshed. I do see a better future as the people get tired of the current bring change from within. In the mean time we will take these mini messiahs to move forward.
Sarfraz Khan Aug 29, 2011 08:22pm
That's not accurate. Most people in the world are not looking for hardworking human beings. They are looking for charisma which is akin to what people in Pakistan are looking for. People in Pakistan are not much different than people elsewhere. Believe me, there is not utopia in this world. Stop demoralizing yourselves this much.
Munir Khan Aug 29, 2011 08:44pm
Pakistani electioneering has evolved in many ways to that of US model.In other words you need to be a millionaire or at least have a massive war chest of money, and you elect the most telegenic of personalities.Nobody is concerned with party politics in terms of "issues", instead it is, (as Paracha rightly points out), messianic in style. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the media made it a point to ask each politician on air what their manifesto pledges are and HOW they will be implemented.At the moment most of the manifestos are simply a series of pledges and glib slogans, that sound good, but are devoid of meaning. Beware of false messiahs they usually have feet of clay!!
Nasir Aug 29, 2011 09:50pm
The one who has no personal credibility is the one who brings the Holy book to get some acceptance to his lies.
S M Shah Aug 29, 2011 10:49pm
when all is said and done, in this quagmire, it will be a messianic figure that sorts our problems... none in the current mould, but, a messiah nonetheless...
Kamal Memon Aug 29, 2011 11:12pm
Awesome !
Kalyan Aug 29, 2011 11:36pm
Power Corrupts. Absolute Power Corrupts absolutely _ Baron Acton (1887).
kamran Aug 30, 2011 01:17am
pakistan doesn't need any messiah anymore.. She needs a party with messiah manifesto which can bring a permanent change
yasmeen Aug 30, 2011 02:44am
at least he called a spade a spade.
Muhammad Farooq, Tor Aug 30, 2011 02:46am
I think this messiah syndrome is a part of developing countries' politics,(I don't call them third world countries as it may offend someone's sensibilities). When the problems caused by politicians and bureaucrats seem insurmountable, need for the messiah intensifies. We need to bring in basic reforms e.g., outlawing of feudalism, eradication of dynastic succession and politics, proper education for all without discrimination and resultant higher comparable literacy level, fair and equitable taxation system. Provision of prompt justice to all without fear and favor etc. Without these basic infrastructural reforms the quest for messiah would never end in Pakistan be it in military uniform or civilian dress.
Muhammad Farooq Aug 30, 2011 02:50am
Obama was voted into power merely because the voters wanted to get rid of Bush politics and the republicans. The rest is exaggerations. No one has a magic wand to wave it and bring in economic prosperity, stability and normalization of international relations.
KHan Khan Aug 30, 2011 03:26am
Again planted article. I would like to ask the author why he forgotten another mesiah Mr. Altaf Hussain who is shedding crocodile tears while somebody is hurt in Gilgit/Balthisthan, while that man remains silent when innocent human beings are killed in Karachi. Do you have the courage to include his name?
zia ur rehman Aug 30, 2011 03:54am
Imran is the one. We are all with this great leader and PTI. All for one and one for all....... hurray
Vajdaan Shah Aug 30, 2011 04:44am
There's nothing wrong in looking for a super hero! With all this lawlessness. As for me they are just selfless people... But also not forgetting that they are neither bulletproof. I refuse to give up on myself, and the good left in people! No matter how scarce or rare.
ahmed Aug 30, 2011 04:57am
so wats the point? every elected/non-elected representative is a 'Messiah' in one way or the other (at least at the time of getting elected). if not, then why else would ppl vote.
Waqar Aug 30, 2011 05:09am
Bravo. Always expect this kind of an article from you, your line of journalism is really very opposite to many conventional journalist here..
Asif Aug 30, 2011 05:13am
people will vote and bring the same people to power.
anum Aug 30, 2011 05:33am
yawar here we dont have a choice we arnt united n we dnt look for anybody we know good ppl are selfish or weak n most of them are indifferent all they care abt their bread n butter so we are at the mercy of these ppl alone...its just a cyclic process v r a part of dnt u c no. of votes that are cast in the elections not evn 3/4th of the public show up it says it all we believe none expect nothing yet we dnt have the courage or evn interest to stand up against the evil until we rnt directly affected
Tariq K Sami Aug 30, 2011 06:49am
The only one who comes close is Imran Khan. Will he be the Messiah?
Singh Aug 30, 2011 06:56am
Is there any Law in Pak, where people like Zulfiqar Mirza can be hold accountable for senseless comments which left hundred of kids without father, sisters without brothers, mothers without their sons.
hameer soomro Aug 30, 2011 06:56am
Worth reading.... Here in our pakistan or in south asia we people always look for messiah to save us from corruption or from satanic politicians.we just need to strong our institution not institution man...the problem of looking for messiah is roots in our we people always learn or read 1-dimensional history.....
Prudent Injeeli Aug 30, 2011 07:10am
A Messiah has to go to the cross before he can bring about a change. How many of these so called or self procalimed Messaiahs would dare do that. The answer is obvious. Anyway, Great article NFP
Agha Ata Aug 30, 2011 09:12am
No Messiah is a messiah unless he has performed a miracle. (Period)
Jalaluddin S. Hussai Aug 30, 2011 10:33am
I generally agree with the "Messiah" analysis of Nadeem Piracha. However, I sincerely feel that Pakistan can only find a respectable place in the comity of nations, if all of us Pakistanis, living inside the country or outside, work really hard. As they say Rome was not built in a day, the immigrants and pioneers,who developed countries like USA and Canada, worked very hard for a period of at least 200 years! We can make ourselves happy by saying that they are "kaffirs" and the God Almighty will banish them from the face of the earth. It will never happen. These countries have really earned their prosperities! Let us, Pakistanis, also work very hard and sincerely! Perhaps we might also reach the level of Western prosperity in a few decades time. The "saviour" and "insha-Allah" escapism will just not work!
Nizam Ahmed Aug 30, 2011 10:33am
There is no messiah even if someone performs so called miracles. There are no miracles in this world.
Irfan Aug 30, 2011 12:31pm
NFP, please dare to include ur good friend Altaf bhai in the list...
Rehan Siddiqui Aug 30, 2011 01:20pm
Its use less to shout out in Pakistan people are deaf and dumb, they won't come out for the change. Politician know this reality very well and enjoying the benefits.
Dr zulqarnain rustam Aug 30, 2011 01:25pm
It is to be exclaimed that the real saviour could only be real man and when we say the real man it never means zia ul haq or ayub khan , but could go with bhutto and when we see the real face now present it glimse only the mirza the truth becoz thats what our religion says if any one calls himself a muslim than he should never have any objection with ths man's words , becoz he exposd only and only truth , come on media you r given a role whch u never performd bt now mirza has given you a line to follow.
shaukat ali chughtai Aug 30, 2011 02:33pm
NFP"s analysis of messhia is eye opener. The psudo-democratic set up prevalent in this country is not going to change for at least next fifty years. Let us wait. Try to create a Left Religious Party only because people at the helm of affairs would not tolerate liberal moderate secular system. So try to create Relgious Left groups to achieve our cherished goals. No messiah expected. Forget and live under the same PPP, N ANP and Alphabet League for many years to come. Possibly, some change may merge from younger groups in the future. Currently no Hope.
Syed J Ahmed Aug 30, 2011 05:30pm
Hahaha great article, O' great messiah... O' great messiah.
dr aliya khan Aug 30, 2011 07:27pm
karachi is capital of sindh,why mr paracha ia using karachi and sindh,as karachi separate entity
saad Aug 31, 2011 02:08am
This article clearly proves a very simple point that NFP is very pro MQM. Apart from arguing against why people of pakistan are beginning to dislike MQM, he comes up with a short history of notable and popular political figures.
Shiraz Aug 31, 2011 01:12pm
I don't understand why there are countless discussions, opinions, debates and talks going on about politics. It is all useless. All current political parties are corrupt and interested in themselves period. Every last citizen is responsible to work towards peace, humility, and unity and that is what everyone must do instead of waiting for anyone else to do the job. No one ever will. Interestingly, the so-called leaders of prominent parties reside outside Pakistan and yet we allow these scoundrels to push our country to the brink of disaster every single day. Let us practice unity, discipline, and keep faith in all that's good and refrain from all that is not good.
aamir khan Aug 31, 2011 01:24pm
NFP has simply stated historical facts about periodical messiahs to whom people attached their expectations to free them from corruption and bad governance.This is all well known to all and nothing is new in it which could be discussed further.
Hammad Raza Aug 31, 2011 04:13pm
The biggest issue with our country is that there is alot of corruption in our governance hierarcy/departments which suffer intrusion as and when the newly elected or self imposed governments like marshal law impose their authority in an over weeing manner to install the people of their choice at the helm of affairs irrespective of the fact whether they have the capabilty or insight to do justice to their position or not;eventually resulting into more chaotic situation when they fail to dispense thier responsibilities in an unprejudiced manner.Dear readers, if we are to build our nation then our institutions needs to be strong.America is not a nation but a system which is very well protected to execute their strategies no matter how strong a political figure has resumed the office of presidential post and i believe we should strive for the same.Anna Hazare lokpal bill is the commencement of the same movement to extricate all the institutions from corruption and then look for the outcome which would be fruitful in many ways.Hope our countrymen could trigger the same movement and bring about a radical change in our country.....Regards.
Rahil Sep 01, 2011 02:05am
your comment about America not being corrupt is quite short sighted....furthermore, it will be interesting to read Arundati Roys take on Anna Hazare's campaign!!!
EJAZ Sep 01, 2011 02:18am
It is not advisable to use Quran in politics of parties. Quran is for 'Hidayat' and not for other uses. Hope ZM did it due to ignorance and illiteracy.
EJAZ Sep 01, 2011 02:41am
Wao! I like it. Very true.
Sandeep Sep 01, 2011 10:33am
Why can't you be a messiah instead of Imran khan? Is the Messiah is the property of politicians only?
N Siddiqui, New Jers Sep 02, 2011 02:23am
Dr. Aliya Khan, Karachi is the capital of Sindh but it is also Mini-Pakistan. This is not a secret. Where NFP writes Karachi and Sindh, he means the interior Sindh. This is common terminology people use all the time. This does not mean that he treats Karachi separate from Sindh. I don't think that there are any ill intentions involved here.
dg88 Sep 11, 2011 01:46pm
Arundhati Roy is not even taken by Indian intellectuals. If you quote Roy it means you do not follow reason but emotions.