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#4602, 11 August 2014

Dateline Islamabad

Pakistan: Of Messiahs and Marches
Salma Malik
Assistant Professor, Department of Defence & Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad

It is both tragic and funny how the poor Pakistanis take anyone and everyone for the political messiah. All this proverbial messiah needs to do is say the right things with passion and fervour. Interestingly, the way Pakistani decision-makers run the country’s daily affairs and take their subjects for fools, makes the messiahs’ work easier and convenient. Whether these messiahs deliver what they promised is a matter of great debate.

The latest in this series are the not-so-new Imran Khan, and Tahir ul-Qadri. Both promise to bring revolution by leading long marches into the capital city to the added discomfort and misery of the general public – who are quite done with long marches, cordoned cities, road blocks, cellular services shut for days and the recent addition: gas stations running out of supplies. It is essentially like being in a state of emergency, with everyone anticipating the worse and wishing for stability. But there is always a segment of the population that is willing to march along.

In a way, this is all about democracy – people voicing their sentiment in a country that has not been famous for democratic traditions. The previous military rule paved way for a democratic government, albeit hinged on extremely fragile foundations. However, despite the inherent fragility, the Pakistan People’s Party-led (PPP) government not only survived the promised five years but also instituted constitutional reforms that would, in the long run, strengthen the country’s democratic foundations, and successfully concluded its tenure via a smooth and near-peaceful political transition. This happened despite the existence of a strong, belligerent opposition and a hyper active judiciary. However, the messiahs and marches haunted the PPP just as much, primarily because of the fact that they failed to perform on the governance meter – with a ready excuse that there was no space for them to perform. 

For the current government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, however, this excuse cannot work. Voted into power with control of the most powerful province in the country, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) strength has been its strong team of technocrats, its investor-friendly vision and unlike the PPP, that was often considered the rich and corrupt boys’ club and passionately disliked by the kingmakers, the former has friends and protectors in the right places and enjoys a sizeable clout. Acting as a messiah themselves, the Sharifs and their team used the right language to a roaring success in the 2013 election; and followed closely by la capitain – Imran Khan – who was considered the best thing to happen to Pakistan in a long time. The PML-N voters were a steady traditional vote base who invariably cast their fate in their party’s favour. The captain’s voters were the first-timers, young, vibrant, and holding onto the promise that their vote really matters, and they infused energy into skeptics to cast their votes as well.

Easily distinguishable from their youthful looks and sparkling eyes as if they were revolutionaries and not part of an evolutionary process. But this is the latest fad led by Uncle Sam, where the discourse on revolution has been reinvented and reinterpreted. So the TV-anglesite Tahir ul-Qadri landed from Canada and marched into Islamabad after making strong “revolutionary” declarations at mammoth rallies across Punjab, with a large number of followers in January 2013. After a three-day sit-in seeking the end of injustice committed by the incumbent government in harsh weather, he went home in the comfort of his trailer with all promises frozen, making a mockery of everything.

Then, as now, Imran Khan was the other revolutionary torch-bearer, but not joining hands with Qadri. Once again, they will find blind followers, similar in their passion, but different in their outlook, carrying the same sentiment with which a majority of them went to vote: transforming the country into the promise these messiahs throw at them. Yet, these innocents fail to realise that these messiahs are independent in neither their thoughts nor actions. Indulging in conspiracy theories – that is a South Asian norm – their handlers have a different agenda to play. While the incumbent government’s mega transportation schemes will not change the lot and effect positive change in the lives of ordinary citizens suffering the daily brunt on gross mis-governance, these empty histrionics will too will not lead us to the promised land the public endlessly seeks.

At a time when the country is undergoing a tremendous security transformation and faces massive internal governance issues, the need is not for the rulers to act with paranoia and convert the country into a battlefield – which may, owing to their mishandling of the issue, push the country into civil unrest – but to show wisdom and insight and handle the problem at hand, manage the political crises that are much their own creation; and once settled, introspectively try and be democratic and govern the country in a manner befitting democrats; happily bid farewell to the Maulana to prepare for another march; and allow the public to lead our daily lives.

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