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Political comedy

REMEMBER that old comic called Spy vs Spy that Mad magazine used to run? The contest between Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif is increasingly beginning to look like that to me. Just when one of them is down, something happens to shift the tide.

The one thing that defined the characters in the cartoon was their obsession with doing each other in. It appeared that was all they ever had on their mind. Not that different from the cartoon under way in our political space today, although what is different in this case is that a whole host of other responsibilities of state are getting stuck in the crossfire.

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It has long been clear to me that the protests are a superficial phenomenon, despite the large numbers of people attending the rallies. Large crowds are not difficult to arrange in today’s Pakistan. The protests were superficial because the rest of the country outside a small strip of land in Islamabad only saw them on television. There was no meaningful impact otherwise.

The protests are revealing how easily our political space can become hostage to cartoonish obsessions.

Today that assessment remains by and large accurate, but something has begun to change. The protests are revealing how easily our political space can become hostage to cartoonish obsessions. In their zeal to do each other in, the adversaries in this comedy of errors are now plumbing the depths of folly that leave the rest of us bemused: is this really the mental level of these people? And they’re in charge?

Consider the decision to disrupt the Faisalabad protest using party workers throwing eggs and tomatoes. Which genius thought of that? It was only a short jump from there till the shot that felled a poor worker of the PTI, another hapless soul laid down by senseless politics.

Shutting down Faisalabad was not really the objective of the protest. It was only to make a splash in the city’s central area, known as Ghanta Ghar to its residents, and the Clock Tower to outsiders. All of the city’s major wholesale and retail markets operate out of that vicinity, and as of 11am that day, when I last checked, the markets were largely open. All the industrial units were operating fine. And the sizing and weaving freelancers, those with small looms operating out of their homes who make a substantial chunk of the city’s economy and who are probably the only local stakeholder that has successfully shut that city down in the recent past, all were up and running.

Moreover, no leadership of any of the industrial and trade associations had announced any support for the protest.

Individual factions amongst these associations were indeed working with the protest leadership to help bring out people, but they were small in number and mostly motivated by political ambitions. If the protests turned out to be successful, these faction leaders could then make a viable bid for the leadership of the larger association.

The only thing the protest would have successfully done, had it been allowed to proceed without obstruction, would be to shut down Ghanta Ghar post lunch, and cause a number of traffic jams around the city. All of this would have happened in the second half of the day, and dissipated by the next morning.

So what on earth was the use of bringing out party cadres to hurl eggs and tomatoes? And if it’s true that the armed shooter had links with Rana Sanaullah, then what on earth did they think this was going to accomplish? Did hurling stones and abuse at the long marchers when they crossed through Gujranwala really impede the march? Did it accomplish anything, other than give the channels exactly the visual spectacle they were looking for?

Now that the pot has been stirred, all eyes turn towards Lahore. It’s highly unlikely that the protests can make any meaningful impact on Karachi. And in Lahore, none of the traders associations are supporting them openly. The industrial areas are located too far apart to be easily disrupted. Public transport cannot be crippled easily to bring the city to a standstill. A few burning tyres, a public jalsa with angry speeches, another night of the same footage and the same shouting isn’t going to spell doom for anyone. When was the last time a political party successfully shut down Lahore?

Why is Nawaz Sharif not learning from his experiences? That’s where I keep getting reminded of the Spy vs Spy cartoon.

The two characters in that cartoon never learned. They simply couldn’t learn. They were creatures driven by their obsessive zeal to wipe each other out, and that’s as far as their thinking ever stretched. The rest of us observed their antics and harebrained schemes with a chuckle, but they could never know that there was a wider world beyond their hatred for each other.

Meanwhile, as the cartoon unfolds, the rest of the country has fallen into the same eternal troubleshooting mode that we’ve had as our economic policy forever. The government is hemmed in by myriad industrial interests, each seeking their pound of flesh.

The textile lobby in Punjab has successfully extracted its demand for 100mmcfd of gas to be supplied to them through the winter by shutting down the supply to the 400MW Rosch power plant, which must now operate on expensive furnace oil or shut down. Sugar mills are demanding a lower procurement price for cane. And the IPPs have forced another round of negotiations, agreeing to suspend their notices for calling in the sovereign guarantees while continuing to negotiate on the amount that will be paid out on their receivables as well as the schedule of disbursements.

This time round, it is difficult to argue that the problems have been hoisted upon the government. This time the problems owe themselves to the government’s own mishandling of the political challenge before it.

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @khurramhusain

Khurram Husain, "Political comedy," Dawn. 2014-12-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , National issues , Policy making , Political statbility , Government-Pakistan , Leadership , Economy , Imran Khan , PM Nawaz Sharif , Gujranwala , Lahore , Karachi , PTI