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The baby and the bathwater

April 28, 2012

“POLITICS is like a horror movie, which is for adults and not for the faint-hearted,” Yousuf Raza Gilani told his cabinet colleagues soon after being convicted of contempt by the country’s apex court.

I say only Yousuf Raza Gilani because there is great confusion whether he can still be addressed as prime minister. Mr Gilani and a majority of parliament believe he is the prime minister; his opponents both of the elected and unelected variety say he is now a former prime minister.

The Supreme Court ruling has also left us none the wiser. Perhaps the detailed verdict will clarify the state of play. Till then you are free to interpret the short order, given the side of the divide you happen to be on.

Welcome to Pakistan. Welcome to the land of confusion and contradictions. Speaking of which I don’t know why but I was taken back nearly three decades. Hope you’ll bear with me. We were all at university. A friend asked some of us over for dinner as another friend of his was visiting from abroad.

Ata, who also attended Karachi University with me and was punctual to a fault, picked me up in his father’s rickety old VW Beetle, and we were the first to arrive for the dinner. We sat around chatting till the guest of honour arrived.

He was accompanied by a slim, dark, (but not very tall) handsome man with a thick moustache that he was given to twirling every now and then. This pleasant man, in a starched white shalwar-kameez, introduced himself as Asif.

Soon an animated discussion was under way. This was around the time of the MRD (the anti-Zia Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) movement which saw the dictator use tough measures to put down dissent all over the country, with particular brutality in Sindh.

At some point, Ata, who was a wonderful, truly egalitarian young man from central Punjab, sympathised with a point of view being expressed: “I totally understand and appreciate the sense of deprivation prevalent in Sindh and the reasons for it.”Asif all but exploded: “This is the problem. Even good people like you call it a ‘sense’ of deprivation. ‘Sense’ could be wrong, unreal too. What we are being subjected to is outright, brutal deprivation and till everyone understands and acknowledges that nothing will change.”

Ata could be combative too but, against the backdrop of daily reports of oppression filtering in from the interior, just mumbled a few apologetic words, and all but disappeared into the thick sofa. Dinner over, all of us headed out at the same time.

Being a car buff, my eyes lit up when Asif unlocked a gleaming Merc. A lime green 280 S. After he had driven off, we were brought rather rudely back to reality. Ata turned the key in the ignition. And the slow, grinding sound brought home a sinking message. The battery had decided to humiliate us.

Thankfully, over dinner we had invested in sufficient goodwill with the chef in praising his cooking for him to gather a few mates from the neighbourhood to push-start the car. As the car was jolting, jerkily coming back to life, in the driving seat Ata was saying something angrily under his breath.

The trauma of his car’s failure to start as the Merc disappeared into a cloud of dust was telling. Leaning over, I strained to hear and all I could manage, or dare report was: “… sense of deprivation ....”

The next one heard of Asif was when his engagement was announced. I remember the BBC Urdu broadcast which said PPP leader Benazir Bhutto had been engaged to ‘businessman Asif Ali Zardari in London’.

A fairytale wedding followed; two stints as the prime minister’s spouse; many allegations of corruption, some believed to be factual; well-founded accusations of cronyism; even charges of criminal conduct so bizarre, so outrageously fictional that they’d make you laugh.

But whatever the means, all this while a mass of wealth was created. Despite all the charges, allegations, trials and even time spent in jail that would equal a life term in some societies, nothing ever stuck. The only conviction was overturned when damning evidence of judiciary tampering surfaced.

This would explain everyone’s obsession with the ‘Swiss case’. A sizeable section of the legal community believed that this was potentially our Napoleon’s Waterloo. But it wasn’t to be thanks to the NRO.

And ask me honestly — it won’t be now, letter or no letter. It is water under the bridge for the Swiss, I suspect. Our land of abundant confusion and contradictions is so because perceptions rule here, whatever the reality. Isn’t it true this ‘tainted’ party and its leader were elected by the people.

The courts give verdicts, the media gives facts (straight, tainted, twisted, objective, biased or howsoever you see them) and the people see things their own way. Judiciary and the media like parliament are but civilian institutions, people have repeatedly defied military dictatorships.

The prime minister, it must be said, is himself not untainted by allegations of corruption, of misgovernance. A few hours after he was convicted, his hometown was sending a candidate from his party to the Punjab Assembly in a by-election necessitated by the resignation of a PML-N MPA.

There are those who curse the electorate, say it comprises uneducated and stupid serfs; I say all of us may have failed in ensuring universal literacy. But able to read or not, the people know what they want. They know their right from wrong.

Perhaps they are partial to those with the heart to sit through and, even, enjoy a horror movie called politics. Perhaps, even in their misery they have the wisdom to know democratic evolution takes time. If they’re telling us not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, are they best ignored? I don’t know. Do you?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.