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Old porridge or something different?

The same food, no matter how rich, day after day…how exciting is that? If monogamy was such a great idea, men’s eyes would not wander. If monotony was such a great idea, the fashion industry would be dead… and no Indian sage would have felt driven to write the Kama Sutra.

Change, not sameness, is life – the essence of life. Change, any change, even if it means disorder and turbulence is better than the endless repetition of the same thing. “If all the year were playing holidays; To sport would be as tedious as to work.”

Yet consider the strangeness of the Islamic Republic that porridge it has had for breakfast, lunch and dinner these past 30 years, it is willing to put on the table once more…and call it high cuisine.

Churchill presided over victory in the Second World War. But the war was not quite over and his countrymen booted him out of office in the election of July 1945. Offered the Order of the Garter he said why should he accept it when the British people had given him the’Order of the Boot?

Love or hate her, Margaret Thatcher was no ordinary prime minister. But after ten years in power her own party, forget about the British people, was fed up and in what amounted to an inner-party coup got rid of her. There was no more successful Labour politician than Tony Blair, winning three successive election victories for his party. But after ten years his party had had enough and wanted a change of face, even if that meant the dour and uncharismatic Gordon Brown.

Too much sugar, too much of a good thing, too much virtue, too many exhortations to embrace goodness and shun evil…makes you want to rush to the nearest saloon to restore a measure of sanity.

Churchill and the others were achievers, figures of history. Pity the Islamic Republic, stuck with a few scratchy records which have been playing since Bhutto’s ouster all those years ago.

As a counterweight to the Bhutto legend, the army and the ISI first created the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad and then pumped with steroids the man chosen to lead that alliance, Nawaz Sharif. In time Sharif outgrew his origins and became a popular leader and his party, the PML-N, a mass party, no mean achievement for a former protégé of the security establishment. But that was in 1993, 20 years ago, and since then so much has happened.

Pakistan has moved on or, more accurately, its problems have become more complicated. But politics and leadership remain stuck in the old grooves. The PPP is still there, more a hulking wreck than anything living and dynamic. Sharif’s party has had its heyday and while it may still score big at the polls – by all accounts will score big – today it looks more a throwback to the past than a symbol of the future.

Parties should evolve in response to new challenges. In other climes they do: the Labour Party in Britain today is not what it was in the 1920s-30s; Republicans and Democrats in the US, all different from what they once were. In Pakistan, because of a poverty of imagination among other likely reasons, we seem to be running on the same spot, without going anywhere.

The only new streak on the horizon is Imran Khan and his PTI and while many of the leading lights joining his swelling bandwagon over the past year or so are as fresh and original as yesterday’s Bollywood heroines – Qureshi, Hashmi, Tareen et al – the PTI has struck a chord amongst the youth of Pakistan. Imran’s message is not particularly revolutionary and pressed for details his youthful supporters will fall back on generalities about the need for change. But some kind of a spark has been ignited…you can see this at PTI rallies. But how big an upset this causes we will have to wait and see.

The great thing about Pakistani elections is the absence of accurate opinion polls, each pundit or armchair warrior an opinion poll unto himself. So figures are being bandied about: so many seats to such and such party; the PML-N dominant; the PML-N and the PTI neck-to-neck in Punjab; the PPP out of the race; the PPP getting so many seats; the youth vote this big or the youth vote not so decisive. But this is more art than science, as always with us faith and hope triumphing over any attempt at a rational analysis.

Yet the very uncertainty of this election is what makes it so exciting, the wild card of the PTI responsible for much of this uncertainty. Previous elections were black-and-white affairs: either the PPP or the PML-N looking strong, thus outcomes relatively safer to predict. It is the entry of the wild card which has thrown everything out of sync.

With the old PPP vs PML-N equation shattered, some change has already happened, powered by Imran’s relentless politicking. The man has determination, tons of it…you will have to hand this to him. And he has drive, more than any other politician in Pakistan today.

If only there was more imagination available, a dash of poetry, he and his charged followers would be well on their way to smashing the bastions of the old political order in this most strange of Pakistani provinces: Punjab leading the country in so much – education, commerce, industry – but Punjab in ideological terms a fortress of regression and reaction, the nursery from which sprout the branches of bigotry and intolerance.

Strange that the land which gave birth to Faiz and Munir Niazi, where Jalib held mass audiences spellbound with his subversive poetry, should come to this. The PPP in 1970 represented an older, more progressive version of Punjab. The PML-N represents the later Punjab, dominated by the trader class and the thinking which passes for the thinking of this class. The PTI represents a higher form of conservatism, more corporate-minded, better-educated, wanting to run Pakistan along corporate lines.

The contest in Punjab then is between two brands of right-wing thinking, Hall Road and Brandreth Road conservatism as represented by the slightly-protruding bellies of the PML-N (we take our food seriously, dear sirs); and the Zaman Park, Defence Housing conservatism represented by the PTI.

Hall Road activism has been on the march for the last 30 years. This was Nawaz Sharif’s contribution to national politics, giving right-wing politics a mass base and wresting Punjab from the PPP. Imran Khan’s contribution has been (1) to arouse the dormant political energies of upper-crust conservatism and (2) to galvanise the battalions of the young in a manner no other Punjab party or leader has been able to do since the rise and fall of Bhutto.

If you like your chargha (steam roast chicken) and are given to using a toothpick after your meal, chances are you will vote PML-N. Anything a bit different and you will be adding to Imran Khan’s tally.

Thus, along with political variations, a clash of outlooks and of cultures…and it is working out this way only because the PML-N has failed to evolve. It is still the party run like a family fiefdom, relying on old and tired ideas, rhetoric as stale as the passage of the years. We have changed Punjab, says the PML-N. We will now change Pakistan. Are there too many takers for this kind of fiction?

But dead or alive, an elephant is an elephant and the PML-N has been around for as long as many people can remember. Patronage and incumbency are problems but they are also advantages and these the PML-N has on its side. So this remains an open game and I at least would hazard no bets.

But even if the outlook is murky, the choices are clear: stale porridge on one side, and a slight change in the menu on the other. Each then his own way to the devil but no excuses, please: let no one say we did not know what was on offer.

 Email: winlust@yahoo.com

Ayaz Amir, "Old porridge or something different?," The News. 2013-05-10.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , National issues , Political parties , Political leaders , Elections-Pakistan , National development , World war II , Politicians , Politics , Margaret thatcher , Nawaz Sharif , Tony Blair , Imran Khan , ISI , PMLN , PPP , PTI