Alien days

Published in The Express Tribune

Back in the dog days of ‘99, some bored policemen in Karachi released a statement: Asif Zardari had tried to kill himself. As Pakistan’s former Fpirst Husband was hauled from prison to emergency, the press tried to make sense of it all. Mr. Zardari’s fans cried torture. A lawyer called Farooq Naek said his client was bleeding from the mouth, a minister named Mushahid called it high drama. The police, with humour that only came in Kot Lakhpat black, said the accused might have bitten down on his tongue — to avoid questioning.

Yes, the ’90s went out in style, in all the heat, dust and death worthy of a decade of palace coups. And not another 10 years later, having outlasted both Switzerland and Saif-ur-Rehman, the gentleman from Bambino was taking oath of office. By May 2013, his government became the first to limp to the finish line and totter over, spent. Resilience lies at the heart of the Zardari story, perhaps as much as its sheer greed. Once in office, party and president floated over a Pakistan in freefall.

What happened in Quetta, in Fata, in Karachi, in Southern Punjab, has been in plain view. But to his credit, it took an Asif Zardari to jolt us awake. During one moment of reflection last year, the president said, ’Iss dharti ke dard hain. Agar yeh dard nahin nikalein ge, aap foundation nahin lay ker saktay.’ At least in bringing to the fore all of our ‘dharti ke dard’, the P.P.P. was successful. Bad economics and worse security helped us discover early on that Pakistan was in the abyss. It also helped us discover the people of Pakistan had in them the will to fix it.

Smiling wider than when he came in, the president departs next month, leaving behind a smouldering state. But though our ‘dharti ke dard’ clearly sent the P.P.P. reeling, it wasn’t before the Party laid one foundation their co-chairman had dreamed of: a clean, clear, democratic transition. And in the very long run, that may mark the beginnings of a better place to be in.

As fresh blood streams in, and the Class of ’85 thins out, parliament can be hoped to become more and more representative of the people who vote them in. Election after time tabled election is improving the quality of debate. Performance is edging out baradari, party slants are gaining on personality strength. To take the wider view, a respect for the democratic process is taking hold of the Pakistani consciousness.

People still yearn for the quick fix and, with issues as dire as ours, it’s hard to blame them. But quick fixes, for this hard country, have all but failed. Army takeovers are red-button tactics at best and resemble Cairo at worst. As Brian Cloughley said of Pakistan, ‘Military people are usually quite good at running large organisations, even civilian secretariat, but generally, fail to understand politics and the government, and the give-and-take so necessary in the esoteric world.’ The way forward is civilian and organic. People realise as much.

That said, what isn’t meriting enough realisation is just how much the men in uniform, out of the immediate picture, are sacrificing to this war. Over 5,000 of our soldiers have laid down their lives, unsung and uncelebrated. They fought and continue to fight through peaks and valleys, through Swat and Bajaur and Tirah, so the rest of us can play at security analysis.

That this is a battle for the heart and soul of this country is in little doubt today. It would be worthier perhaps, to act grateful to those who fell fighting for it. Grateful to Major General Bilal Omer, who fought off mosque-storming killers with his bare hands. Grateful to the bomb disposal squad’s Hukam Khan who, having lost three fingers defusing hundreds of bombs in Peshawar, would ultimately lose his life. To say Pakistan isn’t fighting this war is to not understand the quality of life it has lost. To think it will cave in is to not understand the calibre of people still fighting to keep it the Pakistan they grew up in.

Towards the civilian side, there are glimmers of hope. Nawaz League seems to have learnt from its ’90s knife fights, at home and abroad. The energy crisis is being grappled with. Recent tensions saw Indian anchors bay for blood across the L.o.C.; Pakistan kept its cool. A counter-terror policy, at least, we are told, is in the works. Meanwhile, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the P.T.I. is shaking off its May daze and planning out long-term development. Down south, Balochistan’s Dr. Baloch voices the need to heal a province Aslam Raisani couldn’t even pretend doing.

In short, there are things going right and more and more Pakistanis wanting to make them right. A column by Adil Najam pointed out some of the brighter points: the extent of Pakistani philanthropy, their innovativeness, their desire to educate themselves and their children. Most compellingly, Mr. Najam spoke of being part of a generation ‘whose greatest sin was remaining silent in times of tribulation’. The new generation is free from any such apathy. It is loud, self-aware and seeking answers. Helping the conversation along is among the world’s youngest and most vibrant media cultures.

Recently, we saw a random gentleman shut down Islamabad, two semi-automatics in hand, three hostages in tow. Negotiations went on for hours in what was an utter security failure. Then, ambling down the lane like on any casual Thursday, was Zamarrud Khan, hand over heart. A man hitherto best known for his work with Pakistan’s Sweet Homes orphanages, Mr Khan speared Sikander — and was sidestepped. Mr Khan fell. Sikander fired. The police fired. Sikander fell. The saga ended. Mr Khan had no plan, no fallback, and to some, no sense. He went in with little more but the strength of his heart.

And it worked. Call it crazy, but one gets the feeling that Pakistanis have much to hope for yet.