Getting To Know This Circus

I really thought we weren’t getting it, not grasping the reality of this circus. I am glad to report I was wrong. Hilarious takes on what this government is about are beginning to appear, from which the tentative conclusion can be drawn that, as the make-believe wears off, the nation is getting out of its trance.

Perhaps not Punjab as yet, the immortal land of the five rivers always slow to wake up to such things. But elsewhere, hesitantly, the fun has started and even the PML-N’s regular qawwals, its in-house musicians, while not exactly stumped into silence, are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver themselves of anything worthwhile.

Zafar Hilaly on this page on Wednesday: is Nawaz Sharif up to fighting the terrorist threat and himself answers: “You must be joking”. And on Thursday, again on this page, Nadir Hassan with ‘Life is a highway’. He wasn’t being funny and it was serious stuff but I couldn’t stop laughing…a must read for anyone wishing to understand the intellectual depths of this government.

The only thing to be added to Hassan’s take is that for Nawaz Sharif and company life is indeed a highway and even if you stand them up against a wall they would be able to come up with nothing better. Roads, underpasses, overpasses, motorways, empty talk of bullet trains: that’s it, they can do nothing better. All their training, their experience, their long political journey has equipped them for nothing else.

How many times can this be repeated that Nawaz Sharif was put into the field by his military trainers to challenge the PPP? With the ISI tutoring his every step, and with sharpies like Hussain Haqqani working for him (yes, Haqqani was his first press adviser) he excelled at this task. How they enjoyed putting Nusrat Bhutto’s face on the sinuous figures of fashion models or film starlets. Lifafa journalism, envelopes stuff with cash for obliging journos, really came into its own in those heady days. Benazir Bhutto was prime minister in 1988 and Nawaz Sharif as chief minister Punjab made life hell for her.

Not just political training and instructions from the ISI, and from Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s advisers like my friend the late Ijlal Haider Zaidi and Roedad Khan who is still around, but money from the ISI, as in the 1990 elections.

If we are to believe the late Khalid Khawaja, foolish to walk into South Waziristan where he was taken captive by the Taliban and later shot on the orders of Hakeemullah Mehsud, there were even meetings in Madina with that keeper of our sorrows, Osama bin Laden. But something tells me we must tread softly around this one…so let it be.

Obstructionism and negativism was the ISI’s game in those years gone by and our student, probably the best ISI ever had, excelled at it. But the times are different, the world has changed, Pakistan has changed. Yet we are expected to believe that the laboratory product trained for other things will suddenly turn into a Mahathir Mohamad, rebuilding Pakistan and turning it into something new.

We are entitled to our beliefs, entitled even to our illusions. But Hilaly’s simile is apt: if a soufflé (a soft pudding) goes flat, it is in the power of no chef to raise it again. Can’t be done, a flat pudding stays that way. We were hoping for something different: a governing model which went flat in its previous two incarnations was being expected, by optimists, to rise again. But as reality takes over, we can see frustration setting in early. The Zardari dispensation did not lose its spunk and elan so fast. PML-N faces in just three months are getting longer.

But what do you do with the great Pakistani awam? I heard Sheikh Rashid ask this question on a TV show. If they have seen a government going flat twice before and yet re-elect it, with a heavy majority, what is to be done? Good question and what it reveals is the poverty of the Pakistani landscape. We just don’t have anything.

The MQM was always a two-city party. It remains that way. The PPP has just executed a long march inwards, turning itself into a provincial party, with no relevance, at least for now, in Punjab and the Frontier. The religious parties are nuisance parties, great at noise and clamour, and holding Pakistan back, but not so great at anything else.

As for the PTI, it leaves one stuck for words. On a scale of 1-100 its collective sense of history (Pakistani history) seems to be about 5. I was with Asad Umar on a talk show recently and he comes across as someone very sensible, calm and collected. But the rest of this crew…where is it from? One of the lost tribes of the desert, that’s what they look like.

This leaves three forces on the horizon: (1) the army, (2) the Taliban and (3) the Sharifs. We are the awam and it’s just our luck to be stuck with the Sharifs for whom – I can’t help quoting Hassan again – life is a highway, and a motorway, and under and overpasses here and there. (The roads to Raiwind…has anyone calculated how much they cost?)

In 1970 we had three forces: the army, the Awami League and the PPP, and between them they screwed up Pakistan. Let’s hope we escape a similar fate today. The difference is that in 1970 there were malevolent designs at work, Bhutto for one with his own agenda. Nawaz Sharif has no screwing-up agenda; he means well. Only trouble is that there is nothing in his past, nothing in his ISI training, that suggests he is up to the task at hand.

Photos of cabinet meetings: observe them closely. The faces don’t look bewildered, they look blank. This is our problem today, huge problems – and wait for next year when the Americans are finally out of Afghanistan and the Taliban are on a roll – and the best we can do is put mediocrity in the field. Tried and tested mediocrity, which the PML-N publicity machine has tried desperately to rebrand as something terribly new.

Fresh ideas we took care to get rid of long ago, the Pakhtun and the Punjabi Taliban a testimony to our success in this endeavour. But we have even run out of fresh faces. Any half-decent rogues’ gallery would reject what we have: Zardari, the Sharifs, Imran Khan, Altaf Hussain, the maulanas of various hues and colours.

And my friend Syed Ghaus Ali Shah in a huff because the Sharifs bypassed him for president. What a lark. You know what he used to say in meetings? You two brothers have different qualities but you complement each other so perfectly…you are a gift from on high to this country and no doubt Allah is preserving you for some great service. Cross my heart, I kid not.

In the councils of the PML-N when it came to outlandish flattery, Punjabis had few equals but even they would be beaten at this game by members from Sindh, especially one or two from Karachi.

Speaking of fresh faces, on YouTube by chance I came across a recording of Fatima Bhutto speaking at some writers’ conference in Sydney. Was she good? The lady has presence and flair and a great sense of style. And she’s obviously intelligent. She could be the best thing to happen to the PPP but as long as the Zardari and Feryal Talpur qabza group has the PPP in its grip she has no chance at all. Unless there is a revolt in the PPP and the qabza group is ousted. If wishes were horses….

Tailpiece: I mentioned Sheikh Rashid above. What a loudmouth he used to be once upon a time. But he has come of age and, without any doubt, is the pre-eminent political commentator we have on television today…entertaining and engaging, his gift for the pithy phrase livelier than ever.