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The whirligig of time

April 25, 2013
General Pervez Musharraf. -File photo
General Pervez Musharraf. -File photo

EVERY general election in Pakistan is an exercise in self-flagellation. It provides an occasion for adult voters and their elected representatives, like contrite sinners, to scourge themselves in an attempt to atone for sins past.

The sins of the voters are those of commission, committed in February 2008 and in occasional by-elections thereafter, when they voted in members of their choice to the national and provincial assemblies. The sins of those elected representatives were primarily ones of omission, for all those actions they could have taken in the national interest, and chose not to, during the five barren years they remained in office.

In another fortnight, the country will have decided who it wants to be governed by for the next five years. Perhaps these elections will once again confirm the cynical adage that every country gets the sort of government it deserves. Perhaps this time, the voters may yet confound political pundits and bring in a government of leavened competence that can rise above the expectations of its voters. History awaits their verdict.

Meanwhile, an interim national government has deflected the unwanted and gratuitous burden of instituting a case against former president Pervez Musharraf for treason. It has declared that its constitutional responsibility is to ensure free and fair elections, not to ensure that a former chief of army staff and president is given a fair trial.

In a sense, having brought the whole issue into the public domain, now the judiciary finds itself on trial. Will it be able to resist what Shakespeare’s Fool Feste in Twelfth Night described as “the whirligig of time” that brings in its own revenges?

Had Shakespeare been a Pakistani playwright, he would have found it difficult when writing about our present political situation to separate tragedy from comedy. Could his equivalent of Titus Andronicus have been ‘The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedy of Pervez Musharraf’? Or his comedy based on our legislature titled A Pleasant Conceited Comedie called Love’s Labour’s Lost? Or would he have settled for a generic catch-all title: A Comedy of Errors?

Our previous elections have never been without overtones of drama and undertones of comedy. This present election campaign can be said to have surpassed them all. A fortnight ago, everyone assumed that the contest would be a free-for-all between political opponents, in which individual candidates without the right paperwork were disqualified, seat adjustments negotiated, turncoats who brought a dowry of loyalists accommodated, and a residue of disgruntled aspirants left clamouring to ventilate their grievances on television talk shows.

No one thought for a moment that the elections would be overshadowed by a trial that will be unique in many ways, for it would be the first occasion that a former head of state and military chief was to be tried for alleged crimes that range from constitutional illegitimacy to mutinous treason.

Would Pervez Musharraf be made to stand alone in the dock? There are some witnesses still alive who can recall the names of those who helped him come to power and then sustained him while he governed our country for eight years, the equivalent of two US presidential terms.

Political coups are not a Pakistani phenomenon. History is replete with examples of coups in other countries. Some failed, like Lin Biao’s against chairman Mao Zedong in September 1971. Others succeeded, like the one within the British Conservative Party that toppled Mrs Margaret Thatcher in November 1990 or Boris Yeltsin’s against Mikhail Gorbachev less than a year later in August 1991. A few inverted failure into success, most memorably Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, who attempted a coup in May 1979, failed, attempted another a month later, and then settled in as the elected president of Ghana for 12 years or more.

Constitutional lawyers defending Musharraf will undoubtedly have a field day in court, presenting tortuous arguments and legal precedents in his defence. And when they charge on the offensive, they may seek to pinion those who once supported Musharraf. These lawyers should be advised to save their client’s time and our taxpayers’ money. In their submissions, they should simply quote Sir John Hartington’s epigram: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? / For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

Over the past 66 years, we have oscillated between various permutations of real, sham and synthetic democracy. We have experienced every shade and hue of authoritarianism.

The past 60 or so days have confirmed that we have not yet reached a level of dependable, reliable, consistent self-governance. We are the modern equivalent of the Lost Tribes whose Moses died soon after they fled Egypt. We have yet to find another to lead us to the Promised Land. Meanwhile, as a stop-gap, we console ourselves by following lesser Aarons.

Older voters are wary of worn-out leaders whose flaws have been cruelly exposed. A younger generation of voters seems eager to risk its future in Imran Khan’s (albeit untested) prowess as a political all-rounder.

Election-watchers believe that the horse race in a fortnight’s time will be between the PML-N’s two-horse brougham and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s single-horse barouche. And the PPP horse-cart? It stands mired in the muck of its past performance, overloaded with fattened opportunists, and sadly driverless. Loyalists mourn its deterioration. Others, to paraphrase Kahlil Gibran, pity the party whose Bhuttos are either in the grave or yet in the cradle.

The writer is an author.