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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tango of the dummies

Sometimes I get tired of all this...commenting and pontificating and usurping newspaper space which I have been doing for the last 32 years, a veritable lifetime. So much could have happened in this period but the greatest thing about it is that virtually nothing has changed. 

The surface appearance of things may have changed. But the underlying reality remains depressingly the same. The same language of politics, the same issues, or almost the same, in most cases even the same mug shots of the principal characters involved, the dramatis personae. 

Sure, there were no cell phones then and no private television channels. And banks hadn’t got into the business of providing easy money for auto-lending. But as far as ideas and problems are concerned we could still be stuck in the 1980s, the only difference being that many of the problems, like terrorism and jihad, which raised their heads for the first time then have assumed a more terrible shape since. Which in its own perverted way can be counted as a form of progress. 

Problems recycled and, what’s perhaps far more worse, the same cast of characters recycled. They just don’t seem to go away. Reminds me of the Hugo quote from Les Miserables: “Is it then true? The soul may recover but not fate. Frightful thing! An incurable destiny.” 

Our incurable destiny seems to be to suffer the same parade of fools and clowns and dummies. And where elders depart, their offspring step effortlessly into their shoes. In our more hopeful moments some of us talk of alternatives and third options only to be left wondering what this means. 

Under Musharraf the third option we got was in the form of the holy fathers of the MMA, more skilful political gymnasts than their lay brothers and sisters. Dummies in secular clothing, dummies in religious garb. Saviours in uniform. Agency boys talking about the national interest as if they own it, or alone understand it. The sameness of this routine is enough to drive one mad. 

What is it with Pakistani politics? Surely we could do with a better and greater infusion of talent? It’s not as if there is no talent in this land. There is no shortage of smart Pakistanis: educated, clever, articulate, the right ideas in their minds, their hearts in the right places. But why don’t we get to see this in the political arena? 

Next to the entrance leading to the floor of the National Assembly are extracts from Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech, in which he made a plea for a secular state. No one pays the slightest attention to this exhortation, so what’s the point of having it there? Far more relevant would just be this declaration: brevity is not the soul of wit. 

And why do I say this? Because some of the speeches are a nightmare: tedious, long and repetitious...long on anger, short on reasoned argument. But then why should we be surprised? The pithy comment, the gift for under-statement – the ability to make your point without protesting too much and without always sounding angry with the world – appear to be notions beyond our reach or grasp. 

This is a change for the worse. I remember Ayub Khan’s National Assembly and the 1970 assembly. The quality of debate was far higher, with a greater display of wit and irony. This National Assembly, made soporific by Prime Minister Gilani’s distribution of lollipops to everyone across the house, appears to be singularly humourless. Anyway, to each his own. If this is what we have, this is what must be endured. Although, I can tell you, the endurance is not easy. 

And, as an aside, why must the prime minister be always on his feet, always speaking? It is not good to answer everything. It is not good to speak every day. If you do, your words are robbed of any impact that they may have. But, as I said, the motto of this assembly, especially as far as the front benches are concerned, is brevity is not the soul of wit. So perhaps Gilani is powerless before the force of this dictum. 

But enough of this. Only recently did I come across the Coke Studio production of “Alif Allah” sung by Arif Lohar and the very fetching Meesha Shafi. It’s a work of pure joy and really sweeps you off your feet. I mention this because if we have young people producing such things in music and the arts, if we have young Hadiqa Kayani singing “Booyey barian” (this was some years ago) and Shazia Manzoor (where art thou?) with her “Chan makhna” and “Diya bale saree raat”, to mention only these, because I could go on and on and the list would be long, why can’t the same quality of talent come into the realms of administration and politics? 

I don’t find an easy answer to this question. Where are all the bright boys and girls going, all the products of LUMS, etc? When I go for meetings to Lahore – mercifully fewer with the passage of time – I feel like holding my head in my hands because of the kind of people one has to meet: self-important asses, which seems to be a fair enough description. About the political class the less said the better, although in the preceding paragraphs I may have said enough. So to repeat my question, where is all the talent going? Why are the realms of administration and politics turning into saline deserts? 

These are not idle questions, because if we can’t fix our politics, if the quality of decision-making doesn’t improve, we are done for. The priorities we set, the goals we define, the allocation of resources, are all political choices. Public transport, government hospitals, government schools – what kind of money do we want to spend on these sectors? These are political decisions. So if we want to get things right, the quality of our politics, the quality of our national discourse, have to improve or the next 32 years will be a repetition of the previous 32. And when our time is up and others come to take our place they will be beating their breasts in the same manner and giving vent to the same lamentations. 

The next two years are going to be crucial. There is a yawning vacuum in our politics. The last three years since the 2008 elections have been killer years, completely wiping out the enthusiasm which arose when the lawyers’ movement was at its height and the Musharraf era was on its last legs and we thought that the shining kingdom was there before us, just around the next corner, just across the next valley. 

All that heady feeling has gone and the political class, from one end of the spectrum to the other, stands exposed and discredited...not for the first time, this discrediting not being a new phenomenon, but with the added twist that the politically-interested have begun openly talking of alternatives. 

In times past there used to be a yearning for military saviours, galloping horsemen issuing forth from the hallowed gates of General Headquarters and setting right the nation’s ills. Thank God that delusion is over, hopefully forever. This was Musharraf’s one great service to the nation: ridding us of the saviour complex. Now there is a yearning for some kind of a political saviour, someone like Bhutto, but not quite like him, emerging from the wings, sweeping all before him and laying the foundations of a dispensation dedicated to fighting corruption and redeeming national honour. 

This is the fond hope. Imran Khan had only to call for a dharna (sit-in) against drone strikes and regardless of how large or small the gathering in Peshawar was, the chattering classes have begun excitedly to talk of a new knight on the horizon. 

We should not under-estimate the Great Khan’s ability to lose himself in the wilderness, or shoot himself in the foot. He has done it before. But one thing has to be said for him. A lesser man would have lost heart long ago...so many disappointments and so little to show for them. He has to be given credit for persevering. 

Anyhow, there is a vacuum out there waiting to be filled. Either a brave adventurer seizes this opportunity or we can dine on cynicism for another generation. 

Ayaz Amir, Email: winlust@yahoo.com