So most of us got it wrong…I certainly did, expecting an Imran Khan surge that did not come. Just a fortnight before the voting the received wisdom on most pundit lips was hung parliament. Goes to show how conventional wisdom and reality can run on parallel tracks.
But, come to think of it, with the PPP virtually obliterated from the Punjab landscape – thanks to Godfather Zardari and the party’s performance in government – the Q League evaporating into a footnote of history, and IK’s angry call for change touching some hearts but not enough to make a difference, what could have stopped the Nawaz juggernaut?
For juggernaut is what this election outcome has turned out to be in the powerhouse of Pakistani politics, the land of the five rivers…another ‘heavy mandate’, just slightly less imposing than the party’s triumph in 1997.
Some recollection is in order. That mandate Nawaz Sharif blew in near record time, disillusionment setting in virtually within the first six months. Two things took up most of his time: a senseless power grab involving quarrels with president, chief justice and army chief; and inspecting the under-construction motorway. None of this would have mattered if Kargil had not happened. The time for Kargils is over, time having moved on and the army having to rewrite its manuals because of the new enemy, the Taliban.
But the performance question remains: will we see history repeating itself or a more mature, more thoughtful Nawaz Sharif writing a new history?
A new history is possible, provided a few elements of the past undergo some change. Pakistan’s problems are much too serious, leaving little time or space for the luxury of gimmickry. Thus governance has to be understood for what it should be: the recasting of Pakistan, putting the country on new tracks, instead of reducing the meaning of governance to the pursuit of some pet project like the motorway, the metro-bus service or the distribution of laptops. All these are good things but not to the exclusion of everything else.
Militancy, loadshedding and the economy…the leading triad of problems Pakistan faces. Does this leave space for grandstanding or gimmickry?
And there has to be some understanding of that notion which sounds so odd and complicated to Pakistani ears: conflict of interest. You can’t be in government and keep multiplying your factories at the same time. The Sharifs have been past masters at this practice, opening new factories while in power, but the past is the past and a line should be drawn under it. So no more factories, please, at least as long as this season of good fortune lasts or cynicism will set in sooner than anyone realises and the rumour mills, Pakistan’s premier industry, will start humming again.
It would help if the Sharifs made some kind of a start towards returning the bank loans they haven’t repaid for the last 20 years and more. After all, when you are urging probity and patriotism on your countrymen charity should begin at home. But knowing what we are up against this is one miracle unlikely to happen. So a shroud of silence over it with the silent prayer that no more loans be taken or even the gods will burst out laughing.
The Asghar Khan case, and the names and moneys involved in it, is another issue best forgotten. Our superior courts have proved that some aspects of the past can be examined, others are sacrosanct and past touching. The Asghar Khan case is one of them. So let sleeping dogs lie and let’s hope that we become magnanimous about other skeletons from the past too. It’s our present which needs fixing, leaving no time or energy for other distractions.
Nawaz Sharif has so much going for him. He exudes authority and looks more prime ministerial now (not before) than anyone since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, with the extra comfort that he does not face the bitter and venomous opposition that Bhutto did. Nawaz badly fumbled in his handling of the army last time. But this need not happen again, and my guess is it probably won’t because the army has its hands full with the Taliban threat and has learned enough from the past not to be in a hurry to play political games again. And it is a safe bet that there won’t be the kind of suo motu interventionism we saw during the last five years.
So there is no room for excuses, none at all. Deliver and become the permanent party of government, like in Malaysia and for some time now in Turkey…a prospect enough to quail the stoutest heart. Dither, act the buffoon – not too hard an act for the N-League to perform – and see time and opportunity slipping through your hands.
On the subject of looks, Bhutto was born with his looks, his Hindu ancestry on his mother’s side having, I suspect, something to do with it. Was his father, Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, renowned for either looks or wit? I don’t think so. So where did Bhutto’s sharp understanding and distinctive physiognomy come from? This is a subject for some diligent researcher to explore. Benazir Bhutto was of course born pretty but, as we all know, she had her looks altered for greater effect. The perfect jaw-line, the beautiful, Cleopatra nose that we saw when she returned to Pakistan in 1986 – the cosmetic surgeon’s art had something to do with it.
The Sharifs, both of them, owe a large measure of thanks to the artists who did their hair transplants…they really suit them. It has been asked of Adolf Hitler that if named Adolf Schiklegruber would he have risen to power? Unless one is a Yul Brynner, a bald pate, alas, can be an object of fun. I suspect that’s one reason for Mr Bean’s eternal wig. Has anyone seen him without it? Unless I am overstating the case, the miraculous hairdos from London have something to do with the new image of the Sharifs.
Consider also their luck, in all of Pakistan’s history the country’s luckiest politicians, flying high on flimsy wings that would have brought any other Icarus low. Manufactured first in the military’s power laboratories, tutored and guided by the likes of Gen Hamid Gul but since 1993 when they took on and defied President Ghulam Ishaq Khan very much on their own.
The initial strategy was the ISI’s: that Punjab should be wrested from the hands of the PPP. The strategy worked so well that Punjab now for over 20 years has been in the grip of the Sharifs, the PPP driven from it for what looks like forever. From those inauspicious beginnings Nawaz Sharif has come a long way. He also deserves credit for mentally exiting from the old ISI world of jihad and militancy, although we have to wait and see what practical steps he takes about the militancy problem the country faces.
But good luck to him and his team and for the country’s sake let’s hope they do well. We’ve seen them before but let’s also hope they are different this time….not least, I can’t help saying, in the matter of lunch at the prime minister’s house. The usual Nawaz Sharif lunch – several courses, one or two fish courses de rigueur – would be a gourmet’s delight but after it any notion of post-lunch work must necessarily fly out of the window.
Tailpiece: I should not have applied for an N ticket and if I did and was turned down any sharp criticism of the party soon after would not have appeared in very good taste. Not that I was uncritical of the party before but in this context it was bound to sound like sour grapes. For this, my apologies and ashes on my head.