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Dangerous diagnosis; clear signs of exhaustion – by Ayaz Amir

Islamabad diary

This is premature exhaustion, a government and political dispensation running out of steam and ideas, and nothing going for it but the power of inertia. Musharraf, a bitter comparison, arrived at this stage in four or five years. By 2005-2006 his rhetoric even to his ardent supporters had begun to sound stale and tired. The present lot of paladins has arrived at the same critical point in less than half that time. This must be counted as its most striking achievement.

The ideology of the post-2008 democratic revival was anti-Musharrafism. But with other problems rising to the fore, that call to arms has lost what traction or resonance it had. The departed tin-pot strongman’s name now induces boredom. Any denunciation of him is the last resource of orators with no other arrows in their quiver. Musharraf himself is down to drawing spiritual sustenance from his Facebook following. It can’t get any worse than this.

The restoration of the judiciary was the call which inspired a section of the political class and the entirety of the chattering classes after the roll call of the February 2008 elections. An entire year was consumed first in thwarting this move and then giving way before it. The judiciary stands restored but the promised path to national renewal that was supposed to open up looks like another pipedream.

Awakened to the paths of glory, their restored lordships, hailed as national saviours by a nation ever in search of unlikely heroes, now show every sign of succumbing to Pakistan’s foremost temptation: the aching desire for over-fulfilment. Sooner or later, authority in Pakistan–military, political and, as we are now seeing, judicial–can’t resist the fatal urge to overstep its bounds.

Our fatalism, and we are a fatalistic people, should teach us moderation and patience. But when it comes to the conduct of national affairs, these seem not to be among our cardinal virtues.

On four occasions Pakistan has been laid low by the army’s attempts to save the nation. Now it is the leading lights of the third pillar of state falling into the habit of issuing so many papal injunctions. We can only wait with bated breath for the outcome.

The presidency is driven by nothing higher than the instinct for self-preservation. It has done all in its power to stop the wheels of accountability, supposed to have been set in motion by the NRO judgment, from churning. The landslide-created Hunza lake could burst its banks and flood the Indus. There could be cataclysms on the military and political fronts. But the presidency is attuned only to the music of saving its skin.

The Supreme Court is betraying signs of frustration because it thinks the provisions of its judgment in the aforementioned case are being flouted. This is leading to avoidable outbursts of temper. But it remains determined to pursue the scent and have the government write to the Swiss authorities to reopen the Swiss money-laundering cases which touch upon the person of President Asif Zardari. This is a situation tailor-made not just for simmering confrontation but eventual collision.

Their lordships may think they have public opinion behind them. But this is a calculation open to considerable error. The people have had their fill of slogans and calls for national redemption. They are now worried about problems closer home: the cost of living, power blackouts, and the like. Accountability is not the same siren call as it once was.

The nation has played with judicial and political issues–such as the glorious achievement of the 18th Amendment, which seems somewhat less glorious by the day–and now it wants to move on. But those hurling shots at the political horizon seem to be caught in a time warp. They also, like so many of our other players, seem to be fighting yesterday’s battles.

Where is all this heading to? I really don’t know. If there is one thing pundits, self-proclaimed or properly anointed, should avoid, it is prognostication. But one thing is certain. Where the political class should be concentrating on other things–inflation, energy shortages, balancing the books–its attention will remain distracted by peripheral issues. The distinction between the essential and the non-essential still seems to lie beyond our national grasp. The summer ahead should therefore be interesting. We will continue to tilt at windmills. As to what may lie beyond, only the gods in their inscrutable wisdom should know.

Ruling the largest province—which in more senses than one is more than half of Pakistan—the PML-N too is part of this dispensation. Is it also showing signs of exhaustion? Is it too short of ideas? Especially for a fellow-traveller, this is a dangerous line of questioning. No one likes doubting Thomases from within one’s own ranks. So let me say no more.

But one thing is for sure. The slogans are outdated. Their lordships, whose cause we carried on our horns for so long, have been restored. The 18th Amendment is out of the way. This is a time for taking stock and searching for fresh directions.

The necessity of such schemes as the heavily-subsidised sasti roti (cheap bread) scheme would also seem to have passed. And, please, in any coming Ramazan let there be no more subsidised Ramazan package. Governments must learn to start living within their means. It is in this context that Punjab should perhaps be taking a second look at the hugely-expensive Daanish schools. But since this seems to be a pet scheme of the chief minister’s, and he being someone not easily given to changing his mind, discretion demands that I hold my peace.

(Although, to be fair to the PML-N, it is more of a laidback party in many respects than many people would be prepared to give it credit for. In the PPP, to which I belonged once upon a time, it was difficult, nay impossible, to carry on with politics and journalism at the same time, unless of course the journalism was fulsome and sang the unstinting praises of the leadership. It’s not so in the PML-N where, the Lord be praised, I have not faced the same problem.)

The army too is in danger of getting stuck, not so much in a rut as on a plateau. Swat and South Waziristan have been successes and they haven’t come cheap, many valuable lives lost in these operations. But what is the way ahead? The insurgency, or call it what you will, has been contained. The Taliban have suffered reverses. But they haven’t been defeated or eliminated.

So even if we talk to the Taliban (something which we will eventually have to do) from a position of relative strength once the Americans begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, as they are likely to start doing sometime next year, that’s about it.

There are no more spectacular triumphs looming on the horizon. Between now and next year the army has to hold on to what it has won. Consolidation is often more difficult, certainly more patience-testing, than the initial rush to arms. So the army faces a tough twelve months. The nation’s prayers should be with its men and women in uniform.

Although it would vastly help if the army could stick to its primary duty and cut down on some of the commercial instincts which it has developed and honed over the Zia and Musharraf years. Before Swat and Waziristan the army had become too much of a Defence Housing Authority army, its skill in the use of arms in serious danger of being outstripped by its skill in the intricacies of real estate. Just as the political class needs to reinvent itself, and come up with fresh ideas to meet Pakistan’s multiple challenges, the Taliban insurgency is a rare, almost heaven-sent opportunity, for the army to reverse its Defence Housing Authority outlook. That is, if the army is at all serious about the nation leaving its past behind and setting out in fresh directions.

Tailpiece: My apologies to poet and man of letters Ataul Haq Qasmi for not making it to his son’s wedding. I did get to Lahore and checked in at the Gymkhana where lying in ambush were two friends who, treacherously, had taken care to lay out the evening’s entertainment. Before I knew it, it was one in the morning, long past the time for any wedding. Some hope of national renewal.

Email: winlust@yahoo.com

Source: The News, May 14, 2010