By Ayaz Amir
June 24, 2014
These are not the opening scenes of a drama. These are the end-scenes when the plot is racing towards its climax and the curtains are about to come down on the performance. We have seen this so many times before: Bhutto’s end, Gen Zia’s last months after he had dismissed Junejo and the National Assembly and the situation was slipping out of his control, Musharraf’s end and now nothing going right for the Sharifian dispensation, every move on its part coming back to hit it.
Sunday evening the government was still visible…in the form of TV ads and hollow ministerial statements. (Why do information ministers always sound so silly?) By Monday morning the government’s authority appeared to have vanished, activists of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) in their thousands breaching the elaborate security barriers around Islamabad airport and more than once putting the police to flight.
When Nawaz Sharif was coming to Islamabad in 2007 to stir things up against Musharraf, not a soul from his party managed to reach the airport. I was there, a witness to that emptiness. PAT workers are made of different stuff. That is what sets them apart…and probably what is causing jitters in the ruling dispensation. Before the Minhaj secretariat in Model Town they braved police bullets yet stood their ground. The same spirit was evident around Islamabad airport.
This is something new in Pakistani politics. The so-called major parties have the votes, or used to. But organised cadres, steadfast workers…that’s not their game at all.
When Dr Qadri’s plane was diverted to Lahore, his adherents made their presence felt there too. This gives us an idea of their strength and organisation. In Zia’s time it was hard for the PPP to gather any kind of a crowd. In Musharraf’s time the PML-N could not field a hundred workers on the Lahore Mall. Pakistani politics are so structured that the traditional elites which gravitate towards the major parties grab most of the parliamentary seats. The Qadri phenomenon perhaps points to a shift in this alignment.
From the video footage it is clear that Qadri’s workers are not from the Land Cruiser or Wadera class. They are more representative of the people, who should be the republic’s real masters. And the number of women is surprising. No party except perhaps the MQM in its strongholds of Karachi and Hyderabad has such a dedicated cadre of women supporters. This is something to welcome. For too long Pakistani politics has been a happy hunting ground of the privilegentsia. Time this state of affairs underwent a change.
Where does all this leave the Sharifs? They have blundered badly in one thing after another, the Model Town fiasco topping this list. And it is hard to see how they can steady their boat or restore their government’s lost authority. Too much has gone wrong for them and they have misjudged the political mood completely, showing rigidity where a little flexibility would have gone a long way.
A movement of sorts against them has already started. Dr Qadri is providing the leadership and his Awami Tehreek has demonstrated more than once that it has the requisite street power. Other disaffected politicians like Sheikh Rasheed and the Gujarat Chaudhris, Shujaat and Pervaiz Elahi, have come on to the same platform. Imran Khan says the right things but is refraining from taking the plunge and playing a more activist role. More than one commentator has said that he may be in danger of missing the bus again. But that’s Imran Khan. Let’s not also forget that most big guns in his party – lack-lustre figures like Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Jahangir Tareen – are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Not for them the Qadri style of agitation.
Sharif’s mother of all blunders was the fight he unwittingly picked with the army over Musharraf’s trial and talks with the Taliban and then choosing the wrong side in the media war. That was the larger setting in which Dr Qadri is providing the salt and pepper. And it is a sign of the government’s confusion that it is getting nothing right. Drip by drip its authority has weakened, to the point where on the morning of Dr Qadri’s arrival it seemed to have disappeared altogether.
This has created a dangerous vacuum, recalling times past when the echo of military boots resounded in the distance. Not that there has been any computer programming, or a conspiracy script churned out in the inner sanctum of ISI headquarters. What we are seeing are the consequences of incompetence…or rather the wages of inadequacy finally catching up with one of the luckiest dispensations in Pakistan’s tumultuous and grief-laden history. What a long run of success and power the Sharifs have had. But their luck seems finally to be running out.
The Model Town saga was a bit too much. Governments have gone on far lesser things and this was something really big. At a public meeting Field Marshal Ayub Khan was addressing in Peshawar a few pistol shots rang out, the field marshal took cover under a table and his rule was not the same any more. In the anti-Bhutto agitation of 1977, several protesters were shot dead in Lahore and three army brigadiers (including Brig Niaz, great friend of Musharraf’s, etc) submitted their resignations. Bhutto clung on to power for another seven weeks but the skyline had changed.
Fed up with democracy, Gen Zia dismissed the National Assembly in May 1988. He was not the same man thereafter. Musharraf wanting Chief Justice Chaudhry to step down was not such a big deal, certainly not comparable with the Model Town tragedy. But it proved too much for Musharraf, triggering a series of events culminating in his downfall.
Rana Sanaullah’s scalp and Tauqir Shah’s will satisfy no one. Bhutto made a series of concessions in the fraught summer of 1977 but the hounds of vengeance were not appeased. Once again a dangerous momentum has started. The gods of retribution will not be easily appeased.
Once upon a time the Sharifs were favourite children of the ‘establishment’, trained as political gladiators as a counterweight to the Bhutto cult. Outgrowing their patrons they became leaders in their own right. But they forgot the nature of Pakistani politics and plunged to their fall in 1999. A second coming in politics doesn’t come easy. Miraculously, they experienced a second and then a third coming. But they learnt little from their school of adversity and within a year of their third arrival had picked a quarrel too many with Pakistan’s strongest institution. And they have not known how to make amends for their strategic folly.
And the republic’s broad spaces were filled with bright idiots who said that with a strong media and an independent judiciary a new Pakistan was born in which the old power play, boots tapping away in the distance, was a thing of the past. This summer is proving a tough education for such philosophers, and a rough house for the tender plant called Pakistani democracy.