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To the barricades once more

Normal, everyday politics involving, more often than not, jockeying for position, transfers and postings, everyone desperate to make a fast buck can be as dull as ditchwater, and about as inspiring as last year’s hit song. But the turmoil of elections…I personally find few things as exciting as that.

Ennui and laziness are gone, one’s pulse races faster, there is a spring in one’s step. Excitement fills the air. Even the pomposity of elections, the false promises, the playing out of regular hypocrisy with a straight face, can bring a smile to the most jaded lips.

In between elections, when the placidity of politics turns to dullness, I think of putting on the garb of a monk and (no joking) taking to the road…with the essential proviso of course that I should be able to take my laptop with me, and use my credit card when the need arises. But come election time and such monkish thoughts are gone. I become worldly-wise at once.

A lazy sot otherwise, when election season arrives I rise early and make my own coffee, embarked not on an election journey but, my imagination taking flight, the golden road to Samarkand… “for lust of knowing what should not be known”, etc.

In the 2008 election I had with me Montefiore’s ‘Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar’, going to a village rally but immersed deep in the intrigues of the Kremlin. At such times a measure of serenity helps. Attention to detail and the minutiae of politics are important, but not so much that one ends up counting one’s worry beads all the time.

The first election I contested was for the Punjab provincial assembly in 1997 and when I was told, on the very last day, by the PML-N (with whom I had thrown in my lot) that the ticket was mine, my ardour, great as it may have been, was mitigated by the sober realisation that I had not a sou in my bank account. And my house in Chakwal was in such a state of disrepair, not even the kitchen working properly, that it was hard to think of it as a campaign headquarters.

But the golden road beckoned and casting my doubts aside, and getting an advance on my credit card which was all the war-chest I had, I set off the next morning for Talagang to file my nomination papers. I was new to the game and the prospect before me looked anything but promising. My principal opponent, my age but with more of a political background than mine, and certainly with more resources at his disposal, had been a provincial minister and knew the layout of the land better than I did.

I fought that election on a 1982 Corolla and as anyone experienced in these matters can tell you that is really the lowest of the low. Without an SUV, a swanky four-wheeler, one doesn’t look the part of a candidate in a Pakistani election. And my poverty was there for all to see. But we went on night and day and when I would return home very late at night, it was all I could do to keep my feet on the ground.

But all was not bleak. Not only Bhagwal, my ancestral village, but union councils and villages around it outdid themselves, each household, each individual attached to my interest, becoming a knight on the campaign trail. With such enthusiasm at hand, and the PML-N ticket underlying all this effort, there was no way I could lose.

Within a year, or slightly more, I had resigned my provincial seat, the dullness of regular politics getting to be too much for me. And I missed journalism. (We know about the oldest profession. The late Khalid Hasan used to say the second oldest was journalism.) Then came the Musharraf coup which changed the dynamics of national politics, bringing other concerns to the fore. District politics underwent a dramatic change as well, figures of note thinking it politic or expedient to join the rising fortunes of the Q League, baptised by Musharraf as the ruling party.

I fought the 2002 election on a 1986 Corolla, taking out a loan from the newspaper for which I then wrote – at 33 percent interest, if I may note in passing. (Blood-sucking capitalists…what other kind is there?) The odds were against us, all nazims on one side, new recruits to the Q League with them, ISI and Military Intelligence taking an unhealthy interest in the whole process, holy fathers contesting from their own platform, thus cutting the religious vote from the N League.

Yet the PML-N ticket held up well. I lost by about 1500 votes and I suspect even that would not have happened if ISI had not stood in for the election commission. Still, it was exhilarating stuff battling those heavy odds (certainly more exhilarating than having to pay off the loan later).

So as the 2008 election approached I wanted to forearm myself. Journalistic circumstances having improved, I had a bigger war chest than before. Even so I thought it wise to arrange for a bank loan should a financial emergency arise. I hadn’t counted on the luck of the stars.

In that election I had to pay not a penny for any election posters or hoardings, all being provided for by friends and supporters. And there were Samaritans, believe it or not, pitching in with biscuits and tea and sugar. Someone came up with an SUV which made me feel that I had finally arrived. There was another four-wheeler in which sat a posse of gun-toting guards. Things came to the point where we had more cars than campaign teams. And on the PML-N ticket I ended up getting the highest number of votes in Punjab (although I have to add that my opponent got a huge number of votes too, making the overall turnout in Chakwal quite impressive).

In the past five years I have had my dull moments. The National Assembly certainly could have been a more exciting place. But as this chapter closes and another is about to open, things are picking up again and a sense of excitement fills the air. Even the sceptics, casting doubt on the holding of elections, are losing some of their shrillness, the feeling growing that nothing can now stop the elections, not all the caretakers in the world.

And I have had my old Prado fixed up, knowing that it has a rough time ahead. If I was more technically sound, I would have the music in it fixed too, iPod downloads so that from one village rally to another a bit of Wagner (who else?) to lift one’s mood and bring a heroic edge to one’s voice.

But more than Prado or music, it is Pakistan which needs fixing. Too much dysfunction on too many fronts, and I won’t say this is our only chance to make the right choices, but if we bungle this one we are not going to get another in a hurry.

This is more than the crisis of the Pakistani state. It is more like the crisis of the Pakistani spirit. For we are yet to define what this country is to be: an intellectual backwater as it is at present, surrounded by superstition and humbug, and held back by bigotry, or something resembling a modern state based on knowledge and some form of rationalism? Not the Pakistan of the sherwani-clad Jinnah – we’ve had enough of that – but of the cigar-smoking Jinnah.

So enough of moroseness…let the bugles sound. Make ready the Prados and let us not be too harsh on the theatre artists who fill the political arena, always remembering these words of de Gaulle: “In politics it is necessary to betray one’s country or the electorate. I prefer to betray the electorate.”

Email: winlust@yahoo.com

Ayaz Amir, "To the barricades once more," The News. 2013-03-22.