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The mess messiahs make

January 18, 2013

IF only our would-be messiahs arrived with less baggage, and were a little more credible. And would they please not parachute in to save Pakistan long after their sell-by date?

And yet, Pakistanis are so impatient for change — even for the worse — that they grasp at any straw, hail any saviour who offers us a way out of the mess we perpetually place ourselves in. Over the years, messiahs have come in a variety of shapes; mostly they have worn khaki, but currently, we are blessed with a range of civilian options.

The latest one was, until recently, inhabiting a metal container with a bullet-proof glass side in the middle of Islamabad. From this bubble, he delivered threats, ultimatums and interminable speeches to an adoring crowd numbering anywhere from 20,000 to ‘millions’, depending on who you believe.

Luckily, this multitude was well-fed, even if it wasn’t very warm and dry: according to one newspaper, the local caterers had received huge orders for cooked meals to feed the faithful. How they coped with other natural needs for several days does not bear thinking about.

There has been much speculation over Maulana Tahirul Qadri’s source of funding: his TV advertising blitz, the logistics for his public rallies, and the cost of his ‘long march’ were clearly not cheap. Nobody has yet identified where all this money came from, and this mystery has fuelled many conspiracy theories.

Another puzzle is about exactly what he’s peddling. On the one hand, he says he is all for democracy; but at the same time, he is using entirely undemocratic means, and advocating unconstitutional steps, to push his agenda.

If he’s really so concerned with the situation, all he has to do is renounce his Canadian citizenship and run for the elections that are barely three months away. Come May, and his adoring millions will sweep him to power.

But that’s the problem with all messiahs: they are in too much of a hurry to put in the hard grind needed to achieve power. Some use military muscle to get in, others turn to the street. And intriguingly, judicial authority is now being exercised to wield executive power.

One thing they all have in common is a deep distrust of the ballot box. Politicians have to work hard for votes, whatever their aims. For any political party to come to power anywhere in the world, its leaders have to make compromises and strike deals. Messiahs see things in black and white, and for them, political wheeling-dealing is anathema.

Of course, once they are in power, they barter away all principles for the sake of legitimacy and support. Witness the deals generals Zia and Musharraf both struck with the religious right.

Qadri’s ‘agreement’ with the government is worth a lot less than the paper it’s written on, but it did allow him to claim victory and declare his Islamabad farce over and done with.

And yet, despite our long and bitter experience of messiahs, we welcome them whenever a new one appears. Remember the enthusiasm civil society and the media showed for the restored chief justice five years ago? It was almost as though the Second Coming was upon us.

One dismissed and disqualified prime minister later, and with the possible arrest of another, some of Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry’s supporters may be having second thoughts.

Those who had invested in shares will be feeling particularly aggrieved: in the wake of the recent Supreme Court directive for the prime minister’s arrest, shares fell by 450 points in a single day, wiping billions of rupees off the stock market. Luckily there have been no calls for a suo motu inquiry into these huge losses….

For some time now, a number of state and non-state actors have seemed to be in a contest to show who can make Pakistan look most like a banana republic. What can the world make of a country that’s locked in mortal combat with vicious groups of terrorists, and yet insists on remaining in a permanent state of political turmoil?

From one crisis to another is only a news cycle away. Just when it seemed that this government, corrupt and inept though it may be, was about to achieve the improbable by completing its five-year term, question marks have suddenly appeared.

One of Qadri’s more inane demands related to the dismissal of the Election Commission of Pakistan. Considering that it is now headed by retired Justice Fakhruddin Ibrahim — Fakhru Bhai to his many friends and admirers — this made even less sense than the rest of Qadri’s wish list.

The head of the ECP is one of the most respected public figures in Pakistan, and his appointment was welcomed across the political spectrum. It is hard to think of a more upright and esteemed person for the job.

And this about sums up Qadri’s grip on reality. Whatever his rhetoric, it is clear that he is the front man for shadowy agencies that have peered into our electoral future, and disliked all possible outcomes.

After the contentious Kerry-Lugar bill that sought to subordinate the army to the civilian government as well as the Memogate affair, the defence establishment has come to hate Zardari and the PPP.

Nawaz Sharif remains a threat, given his antipathy for GHQ following his arrest and exile under Musharraf. Imran Khan has proved to be a punctured balloon. The PML-Q has very little support. And the MQM, despite its proven loyalty to the military, remains tied to its narrow urban base. Direct intervention is no longer an option.

So how to engineer a delay in elections with a long-term interim government under the army’s thumb? Enter Qadri in his fish bowl after a slick media campaign to prepare the way. I am not a great one for conspiracy theories, but do believe in the old adage: “Follow the money”.

Washington is the unlikely source for Qadri’s funding for the simple reason that in case the democratic process in Pakistan is derailed, US laws would immediately block all military and civilian assistance. This would be a disaster for the Americans at a time they are disengaging from Afghanistan, and need all the influence they can muster in Islamabad.

One hopeful sign in this messianic mess is the strong signal sent out by Nawaz Sharif and other opposition parties in support of democracy. The other is the government’s mature handling of the drama. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.