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Of octogenarians and octopuses

April 07, 2013

We have breaking news out of America. The world is duly informed that the doyen of television Barbara Walters, 83, will retire. She visited Pakistan in 1962 as part of the press corps covering Jackie Kennedy’s trip.

Walters has covered and interviewed presidents, prime ministers, military brass and politicians all across the world for half a century. She’s famous for her scoops and gives millions of her viewers the ringside seat whenever a scandal breaks out. All eyes are glued to the television sets. We heard Monica Lewinsky for the first time on Walters’ show after her affair with President Clinton threatened to bring the White House down.

We have breaking news out of Pakistan. An octogenarian chooses another to shepherd the May 11 elections. Apart from sharing the age bracket, common to both are black robes. Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim and Mir Hazar Khan Khosa are retired judges. FGE is going great guns vowing to purify the parliament of bad eggs who have converted the country into a hatchery of corpus skullduggery. Prime Minister Khosa too is gung ho on delivering in time the goods (read elections) that he was cherry-picked for.

Group Editor of an English daily, Shaheen Sehbai, and former ministers Babar Awan and Shaikh Rashid along with other TV commentators ask why 80-year-olds got picked up to ‘save’ the country standing at crossroads. Even ‘Terminator’ Arnold Schwarzenegger and ‘Rambo’ Sylvester Stallone — two men in their 60s — have lost their mojo and had to weather their worst moment when moviegoers recently rejected their latest film The Last Stand.

So if guys in their 60s, like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, are abandoned as old geysers, what about our Terminator aged 85 and Caretaker 83?

Still, if the two octogenarians can in a month energise the machinery of state lying smashed, fix the beat-up motherboard, untangle the disabled wires of governance, and quarantine the virus of corruption, Pakistanis will shout from their rooftops ‘Yes, this is [the] country for old men!’

Let us discuss the ‘octopuses’ that inhabit Pakistan. Humans, particularly people in power, resemble these creatures. Why? Like octopuses that have no internal or external skeletons, people hungry for a share of spotlight don’t have a backbone. They bow before the supreme commander. At his exit, these ‘octopuses’ cast the first stone at their erstwhile superiors. Octopuses are known to squeeze through tight places when faced with danger. Sounds familiar? Our ‘octopuses’ too squeeze out in time to save themselves. According to Wikipedia, octopuses have numerous strategies for defending themselves against predators, including the use of “camouflage” and “deimatic (defensive postures including colour changes to intimidate or frighten) displays”.

Our ‘octopuses’ use religion, piety, moral high ground and honesty as a camouflage to defend themselves when put in the dock. They use threats, terrorisation and fear to silence those who dare challenge them.

Wikipedia describes octopuses as among the “most intelligent and behaviorally flexible of all invertebrates.” Don’t we all know by now that the human ‘octopuses’ secret of success (eternal money and power) is because they are cunningly intelligent and shamelessly flexible. They will even cut one of their eight arms to convince the doubters that they be innocent.

All octopuses are venomous. Humans too can be venomous like their fellow creatures.

Mea culpa? Forget it. If octopuses could speak, they too, like us, would pass the buck to someone else, never blaming themselves. How many of us have the pluck to admit we’re wrong. I don’t know of anyone, including myself, who will stand up and be counted among the truth-tellers. When my chicken biryani turns into a mish-mash, with a straight face I tell my dinner guests faced with the ordeal of consuming the goulash that it’s the poor quality of rice. I have been badly let down by it, I complain. Instead of admitting that I am a rotten cook who knows not when to switch off the burner and save the rice from fatality of the flame, I blame the rice itself.

Dr Nadeemul Haque, Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission releases a report on circular debt. It is a damning indictment of the government he served these past five years. Is he trying to convince his future bosses that he was good but the government he served was hopeless? Load shedding began on January 1, 2008 under Musharraf/ Shaukat Aziz combine and continues till today. Why didn’t Haque speak up before PM Gilani or even ‘Raja Rental’ under whom he functioned?

According to a report in this newspaper, Dr Haque blames the ministry of water and power for the crisis, saying that the ministry which is the main policymaker of the sector, has no “roadmap set out for itself and is more reactive than proactive to power sector reforms coupled with lack of political will to help improve the system”.

Dr Haque’s report, we’re told, is “based on an independent analysis funded by USAID”. After reading through the contents of the report as carried by this newspaper, déjà vu hits me. The thread running through the narrative is the same jaded one I was handed some years ago. I interviewed a key player at the American embassy in Islamabad. Charged with the economic and development assistance for Pakistan, my interviewee, speaking on background, listed the same problems and solutions facing the power crisis. While promising to aid and assist Pakistan in overcoming its energy deficiency, the US official (still stationed in Islamabad) was blunt in blaming the Zardari government for its lack of political will and drive.

As a competent economist, Dr Haque was called from America to head the planning commission when the PPP government took charge. To now censure that government and accuse it of an “authoritarian attitude” is akin to playing the ‘Monday morning quarterback’. This term is used for American sports commentators who criticise or pass judgment about players after the weekend ball games are over.

Similar sentiments were heard from another ex-planning commission chief Sardar Aseff Ahmad Ali in a TV interview some weeks back. He left PPP after being dropped as a minster during a cabinet downsizing. He later joined Imran Khan’s PTI but may quit because of ticket issues.

Last year National Accountability Bureau Chairman Fasih Bokhari accused the Supreme Court for throwing a spanner in his work. He wrote to Zardari seeking his help. Charged with a contempt of court, Bokhari has so far managed to survive the angst of the lordships. He too sings a different tune with Zardari, now a lame duck president. The chairman NAB plays the ‘Monday morning quarterback’ by sitting on hindsight judgement over Tauqeer Sadiq’s appointment as chief of Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority  Bokhari blames his two former bosses, Gilani and Pervaiz Ashraf, who till now were his holy cows.

With the protective umbrella of PPP government gone, NAB appears to have grown some muscle. It’s no longer an octopus but a watchdog. It is ready to “move against 2,100 power defaulters” who hitherto were covered in a protective layer that none was allowed to penetrate.

The impartiality and neutrality of Admiral (r) Fasih Bokhari was questioned many times by the apex court and the press when corruption scandals and blatant violation of rules in appointments and contracts by members of the ruling party were pushed under the rug by NAB. Taking a 180 degree turn, Bokhari is now vowing to act as a pillar of support for the Election Commission of Pakistan. In an interview to an English daily, he is promising to break the ‘nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen to end corruption’.

Fasih Bokhari can yet make NAB an effective overseer of good practices and win the admiration of Pakistanis and who knows, that of even the next prime minister.

Half-baked truths are another scourge often found in columnists, TV commentators and authors. We try to show ourselves as transparent, but quite often, we don’t reveal the full truth either about ourselves or the people we write about. Reading a column by Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan in an English daily, I was stuck by an ugly portrayal of his tormenter Gen Musharraf.

The ‘father of the bomb’ is full of praise for S.M Zafar whom he calls his saviour. A.Q. Khan quotes an incident either from Zafar’s book or it came from the horse’s mouth direct. Here’s what he writes: “In September 2007,  Mr Zafar was once requested to see Musharraf. He found the latter stretched out on a sofa with a cigar in his mouth. Musharraf did not bother to get up to receive his guest, merely pointed to a chair and asked: ‘SM, do you mind if I smoke a cigar?’ Now what kind of behaviour is that?”

A.Q. Khan should have balanced his prodigal praise of Zafar by telling the readers that as PML-Q senator, Zafar was an ally of Musharraf’s. Like every other politician, Zafar too entertained the general at his Lahore home.