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Slowly, in English

January 16, 2013

WHAT do Quaid-i-Azam, Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Dr Tahirul Qadri have in common? Each of them will be remembered for having made a seminal speech to a largely Urdu-speaking populace, in English.

The Quaid — a British-trained barrister — understandably felt more comfortable formulating his thoughts and presenting his arguments in the language familiar to him. He spoke as Pakistan’s first governor-general on Aug 14, 1947, in English.

Mr Bhutto chose to make his first address to the public as president and chief martial law administrator on the night of Dec 20, 1971, in English. Those who remember that speech will recall how he spent the first 10 minutes explaining why he had not had time to prepare a written speech, and then the next 10 minutes apologising for having to speak to his fellow-countrymen in English.

Dr Qadri had no such qualms. He began his oration at Islamabad, calmly and with the practiced fluency of a preacher. He assembled his notes (tabulated with yellow post-it flags), adjusted the folds of his striped overcoat, and soon after a few libationary prayers and remarks, he announced that he now speak, in English.

As he spoke from a written text, it became all too clear that his speech bore touches of a foreign hand designed to reach a foreign ear. Unabashed, he admitted that he was addressing first a foreign audience. He said everything that Western democratic governments want to hear from a bearded Muslim cleric: a pacifist non-violent Islam, tolerance, moderation, a condemnation of terrorism, a return to real democracy, reverence for the law and a restoration of order in civil society. It was the sort of list first-world politicians leave for Santa Claus in their Christmas stockings.

Except that here, the speech was being made by a Canadian national who does not belong to any political party and who has stunned his opponents by leading a mini-army of demonstrators to the very steps of the presidency.

By the time Dr Qadri switched during his speech to Urdu, he had already conveyed the brunt of his message. The only two pillars of state, he maintained, that stood upright in the land were the judiciary and the armed forces.

No one listening to him had expected him to compare, as he did with unfeigned emotion, the loneliness of his vigil with that of Hazrat Imam Hussain at Karbala. As if afraid that he would be deserted by his followers before the cock crowed the next morning, tearfully he gave the fainthearted permission to leave under cover of darkness. He was still only one and a half hours into his speech when he was interrupted by the breaking news that the Supreme Court had ordered the apprehension of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in the rental power plants case.

Even he could hardly believe his luck. There he was, asserting that he had the backing of only two forces — God behind him and the public before him — when almost miraculously, as if in swift answer to his prayers for the removal of the prime minister, news came about the SC decision.

Never in the history of Pakistani politics have the prayers of so many been answered so swiftly by so few. To many huddled in the cold on Constitution Avenue, the sensational news seemed to confirm their conviction that Pakistan is truly God’s country. Only He can save it from itself.

The next few days, perhaps the next few months, will reveal whether the prayers of those camped on the long road to Parliament House have been truly answered, whether they have achieved what they so desperately desire.

For the past five years, no one in the political parties would deny that they have enjoyed the fruits of democracy. Too many amongst them have taken large bites from the poisoned apple of patronage. Too few of them feel accountable to those who sent them to Islamabad. Now, Dr Qadri wants to see them sent packing from Islamabad.

Will these parties close ranks against the tsunami of change that Imran Khan hoped would carry him to Islamabad but which has been overtaken by another Neptune?

Will those supporting Dr Qadri provide the PPP with another reason for crying ‘victimisation’, of populating its niches with another set of martyrs?

Will Pakistan degenerate into another, larger Afghanistan?

A week ago, had one predicted that there would be cataclysmic changes in the offing, one would have been dismissed as an unstable alarmist. And yet, an astrologer whose face is familiar to television audiences forecast just such a scenario. He foresaw major changes in Islamabad by mid-January. In retrospect, whatever he divined has proven to be correct — so far.

But before a credulous public seeks him out to join his camp of followers, let them remember the observation made by Pandit Nehru when he was advised that Indian jyotshis, or astrologers, had predicted the end of the world. Borrowing from Shakespeare, he retorted: “The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves!”

In Pakistan, the fault lies not in its stars, not in its efforts to establish democracy, nor in a far from perfect electoral process. It lies, whether we admit it or not, within our voting selves. We have the right to vote them in; we should have the right to vote them out.

The writer is an author.