The old tottering, the new struggling to be born by Ayaz Amir

Islamabad diary: Friday, October 10, 2014 

The old tottering, the new struggling to be born

Ayaz Amir







Sounds a bit dramatic, the title, doesn’t it? But I get the feeling that hesitantly, without most of us fully realising it, a new history is being written. A country knowing nothing but frustration for long gives the impression of finally turning in its sleep.

For many this is a heady feeling. You can see this in the dharnas. For the status quo classes hiding behind the slogan of democracy this is an alarming development. They don’t seem to have an answer to the questions being raised about the dead politics they represent.

The two leading champions of the traditional politics seem like two faces of the same currency. For all practical purposes, there is little to distinguish the PML-N and the PPP except geography. The former is mainly interested in preserving its fiefdom in Punjab, the latter in Sindh, both under attack from Imran Khan. In some ways this is divine retribution: the Sharifs and ex-president Asif Ali Zardari supping at the same table. The jaundiced observer would say they deserve each other.

Bilawal says Imran Khan should learn politics from the Bhuttos. This is not without its share of humour. At what his successors have made of the PPP, a cousin or B Team of the PML-N, Bhutto would be turning in his grave. Even the blessed of short memory cannot easily forget that the most finished, most advanced product, to come out of Gen Ziaul Haq’s political engineering machine, with which he sought to cleanse Pakistan’s political stables and put the country on the path of righteousness, were the Sharifs.

The old politics is dying because it is past its sell-by date. It is not addressing the concerns of the people. And because Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri are talking of the injustices and iniquities of the prevailing socio-economic and political order people are listening to them. This is evident in the huge rallies Imran is addressing. The status quo parties can’t make out what’s happening. All they have at their service are clichés about democracy and the constitution. Because they are hollow they don’t make much of an impression.

Democracy was not threatened by the dharnas. It was the old way politics under attack. This entire agitation has stirred both the middle classes which hitherto kept themselves aloof from politics, and the young and rootless who see no future for themselves in the prevailing system. In a matter of weeks the old shibboleths stand discredited, as people asks questions they never had a chance to ask before.

The anti-Ayub agitation of Oct ’68-Mar ‘69 put paid to the controlled ‘democracy’ associated with Ayub Khan’s rule. The anti-Bhutto agitation of 1977 swept aside Bhutto’s populist rule and paved the way for Gen Zia’s military rule and all that he did in the name of Islam. At another of those turning points which take history down a new path, Imran Khan and Qadri, for the most part unwittingly, are becoming the instruments of a new consciousness.

I say unwittingly for when they set out on their separate marches from Lahore they could have had no idea how it would all turn out in six weeks or two months. Their good luck, and the nation’s, was that despite the visible meltdown of federal authority, when power was there for the taking, the army held its hand. A military intervention would have been a godsend for the Sharifs, bestowing on them again, as in 1999, the halo of martyrdom…their shortcomings forgotten.

But when it all looked hopeless for Khan and Qadri, against the odds, against all the dictates of seeming wisdom, they stuck to their guns and turned what looked like certain defeat to the triumph – in the form of the turning of the tide – they are now experiencing. At journey’s beginning Khan was not the all-conquering hero he now appears to be, his march not very impressive when he set out from Lahore. Qadri had the advantage in numbers and organisation.

Behold then the power of determination. Through biting sun and drenching rain the two stuck it out, when lesser men would have given up. How foolish they looked in the beginning, atop their containers, haranguing their followers. What nicknames did they not earn, what ridicule was not heaped on them not least by the punditocracy.

It was not the fault of the pundits. They were in their ivory towers. Imran and Qadri were closer to the pulse and mood of the people. It’s always like this. In the anti-Ayub agitation most of the pundits were on one side, Bhutto on the other. In this narrow sense at least we are seeing history repeating itself.

What happens next, whether the paralysis of government we see now will last indefinitely or premature elections put the Sharifs out of their misery, are matters of detail. The important thing is (1) that the dispensation of the Sharifs stands denuded of authority, the moral right to govern; and (2) it is possible to feel a new mood in the country, one compounded not of cynicism and frustration but hope and enthusiasm. Despite the pundits, the broad reach of television – this a military dictator’s gift, let us never forget – is proving to be another agent of change. Elections may still be stolen. But it won’t be this easy.

Every pantomime has its day. If the finished products of the Zia era were good at anything it was the art of stolen elections. They had some very good tutors and army and ISI then marched to a different tune. The enemy then was the PPP and the good guys were the windbags and toadies of the right put together under the umbrella of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad by the ISI…and such consummate masters of the political game as my friend Lt Gen Hamid Gul. The popular response to the dharnas, and the public attendance at Khan’s rallies, suggest that the curtains may finally be coming down on this long-standing drama.

The tide when it turns carries all before it. Hitherto unassailable symbols of authority lose their shine; seemingly impregnable walls totter. This is happening with the Sharifs, nothing working right for them, and their authority down to zero.

Imran and Qadri have even changed the discourse of politics. The cry of democracy in danger no longer cuts much ice. Sharif keeps harping on the theme of protecting the constitution. Zardari says he is defending the ‘system’. People are more focused on the corruption and misrule of the political elite, which both the PML-N and the PPP exemplify.

People are just tired of the old faces, as they were tired of Ayub and Zia and Musharraf. In Britain they were tired of Mrs Thatcher in the end and of Tony Blair too when he had been around for too long. There’s just so much the human stomach can stand. The Sharifs have been around for over 30 years.

Does anyone think that people are so dumb that they can’t make out the difference between a more confident India under Narendra Modi and Pakistan under a bumbling dispensation? Does anyone think they have missed noting the difference between Modi’s visit to the United States and our performance there?

Why are people responding to Imran? Not just because of inflated electricity bills but because they want to see strong hands on deck, a leadership of which they can be proud, not a leadership fidgeting with nervousness in front of the likes of President Obama.

Two slogans for the sentiment they captured stand out in our history: the call for Pakistan in 1946-47 and ‘roti, kapra and makan’ in 1970. Now comes a third to rank with them: “Go Nawaz Go”. It has caught the spirit of the times.



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