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PML-N’s bad-maza (tasteless) government

Islamabad diary

Sindh’s strongman, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, and the army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, have one thing in common. Every other day the Sindh CM has to be in Dubai to attend to the concerns and fears of his party head, ex-president and presently more fugitive than anything else, honourable Asif Ali Zardari. Every other day the army chief, leaving everything else to one side, has to attend on the prime minister in Islamabad.

Just as Shah Sahib is in danger of spending more time in Dubai than looking to the affairs – as best as he can – of his nominal domain, the land of Bhitai and Lal Shahbaz, the army chief stands in peril of spending more time commuting to Islamabad and there spending long hours at the PM House than attending to his other duties.

As someone possessed of the Napoleonic quality of going to sleep at will, Syed Qaim Ali – a revitalised octogenarian or at least a septuagenarian, what with his jet black hair and moustache – can be expected to take his frequent trips to Dubai in his stride. One of Pakistan’s champion bureaucrats, Salman Faruqi, once told me that he always looked fresh because he had mastered the art of going to sleep on a plane. We can assume that Shah Sahib has mastered the same art.

But what about the army chief? Unlike the Sindh PM and indeed Mian Nawaz Sharif, who are gentlemen of leisure with not much on their plates, his plate is more than full. He is running a war, the longest and toughest in our history, stretching from Fata to Karachi, and from Quetta to the Indian border. Corps commanders are trying to infuse order and discipline into the working of the different provincial governments through ‘apex committees’. ISI and Military Intelligence are fully involved in the war against terrorism, as the Rangers are employed to the hilt in Karachi. And the army chief is the man looking over all this.

He’s always on the move and, one would think, has not a moment to spare. But then just as Sindh’s ironman, every other day, is summoned to Dubai, the army chief is asked to attend endless meetings at the PM House. There he sits stony-faced. Whatever his inner feelings, he still has to be there. And sometimes those meetings drag on for hours.

They no doubt are good for the PM, fulfilling a psychological necessity – giving him the assurance that he remains in charge and the army chief is saluting him and observing the niceties of protocol. But do they serve any useful purpose for the army chief? Does he return a more enlightened man? Is he instructed in the higher principle of war?

Mian Nawaz Sharif’s advantage in these meetings is clear. He has never been one for such trivialities as reading papers or other stuff. At last count when he was in Saudi Arabia he had newspapers read to him in the evenings, after Maghrib prayers. So when he walks in to meet the army chief from his office or his living quarters he is fresh, his mind unencumbered. The army chief, on the other hand, leaves a full-fledged war behind him in General Headquarters. The ISI chief is also usually in attendance. We can presume he too has a full desk awaiting his attention. And the prime minister just sits there. It would be fascinating to know what profundities pass at these momentous meetings.

It would be one thing if these were infrequent meetings. But as we can see on TV and in the papers they are held every other day. What do the army chief and the ISI chief say to each other, what do they mutter, afterwards?

Gen Raheel may be topping the popularity charts and people may be singing his praises but would it have ever crossed his mind that the PML-N’s revenge would come in the form of this Chinese torture? The rich irony of it has to be appreciated: terrorism on the run in Fata, militancy under attack in Karachi, a drive against corruption underway in Sindh, a rising chorus of demands for similar accountability in Punjab. But the generalissimo, the commander-in-chief in this war on many fronts, a helpless prisoner in the PM House every other day…forced to listen, as can be easily imagined, to an endless stream of pieties and clichés.

The general’s patience has to be applauded. Anyone else in his place would either have relinquished his command or sent in the guards to put an end to this nonsense.

But we must also spare a thought for the PML-N’s predicament. With the military and Gen Raheel overshadowing everything and riding high in public opinion, the ruling party is afflicted with a serious inferiority complex. While it should be conducting the score and the orchestra, circumstances have forced it to play second fiddle to the army.

The man of the nominal mandate is the PM. But the real mandate, as most people now recognise, has shifted elsewhere. The PM heads the government and finger-wielding younger brother continues to be subedar in the powerhouse of Pakistani politics, Punjab. But the joy has gone out of their victory. They continue to be in power but the taste of that power has gone insipid and stale.

The military’s problem is terrorism and bringing stability to the country. The ruling party’s problem – to put it no stronger than this – is envy. The faces of its leading figures tell their story: like Cassius their faces are lean and hungry, like his brooding over imagined wrongs. But they don’t know what to do about it.

They were army-baiters – the Khawaja Asifs, the Pervez Rashids, the Saad Rafiqs – as recently as last year. Necessity and expedience have turned them into cheer-leaders and drumbeaters for the army. To listen to them now, in their enforced conversion, you would think that Operation Zarb-e-Azb was their brainchild, not the army’s.

A drama could be written about the conflicting emotions gripping these Shakespearean actors. They now realise the general’s elevation to army command was a mistake, not bargaining for what has come in its wake. They consulted the world’s astrologers and jotshis but got their calculations wrong – as Bhutto got his calculations wrong with Gen Zia and they themselves got theirs wrong with Gen Musharraf.

Zia and Musharraf turned out to be conspirators. Raheel Sharif has turned out to be something worse: a successful general…one who’s caught the imagination of the people to boot. How can a politician, lord not of one but three mandates, abide a successful general, especially one with popular standing? So riding the nerves of the nominal ruling coterie are not the Taliban or the demons of extremism, as the simpleminded might tend to think. It is the triumph of the army.

So unless I am grossly mistaken they would already be thinking of how to exorcise their nightmare come November next year when the general’s time is up. If they have to make him a field marshal to achieve that end my hunch is they’ll seize the opportunity.

So beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Who knows what comes in their Trojan horses.

So the next 12 months are uncertain. We don’t know what will happen. Much has changed, the most notable change being despair turning to hope. Just a year ago we looked a nation on the verge of collapse. And the astonishing thing is that more than the Taliban or any other threat, our own politicians, whether in government or the other side, were the principal agents of this defeatism, selling it to the nation.

But the work remains half done…and the national stables are sky-high with muck, desperately in need of cleaning. Let’s leave it at this for we will have to call in soothsayers to know anything more.

Email: bhagwal63@gmail.com

Ayaz Amir, "PML-N’s bad-maza (tasteless) government," The News. 2015-09-11.