Meltdown

Published in The Express Tribune

‘One last question, Mr. President, and excuse the brutality of it. Do you think you can last?’

Interviewing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had its perks. Slower men would have balked.

Not the Chairman. ‘Let’s put it this way. I could be finished tomorrow, but I think I’ll last longer than anyone else […] Have you ever seen a bird sitting on its eggs in the nest? Well, a politician must have fairly light, flexible fingers, to insinuate them under the bird and take away the eggs. One by one. Without the bird realising it.’

It’s a moment frozen in time: a hot Karachi summer, April ’72, Bhutto at the rebirth. Even the most cynical of us would be moved to ask, what could have been? Before Mustafa Khar. Before Tikka Khan in Balochistan. Before the F.S.F.

Before 1977.

But Mr. Bhutto refused his own advice (that though one has a hammer, not every problem is a nail). His volumes on Talleyrand, on Napoleon, on Cavour were flypaper; Pakistan’s most well-read head of state — by leaps and bounds — self-destructed via the path most tried and tested and true: police brutality in Punjab.

Then, as now, Article 245 was floated out to bring the faujis in. Then, as now, a Khan was storming the streets, and drawing huge crowds. Then, as now, the cry was vote-rigging. Then, as now, the incumbent would win even if fresh elections were called.

And then, as now, one savage act of violence changed everything.

They opened fire in Lahore: on protestors, on the unarmed, on their own people. Over 30 of the innocent were killed in 1977, outside the Punjab Assembly — minutes from Model Town.

Mr. Bhutto saw the scale of the violence; he saw the wheels set in motion. But he would never, ever accede to the opposition — because that meant the opposition would set the narrative. ‘I do not want to go down in history as a rigger of elections which I am not,’ he cried. ‘If I had rigged elections, I would have said that I have committed a great crime, and let history give its verdict. What the hell is the office of the prime minister? I am more concerned about my place in history.’

But history was on the move. And when three brigadiers were asked to fire on Lahore’s civilians, history was yawning wide open. They said no. Their names were Ishtiaq Ali Khan, Muhammad Ashraf, and Niaz Ahmed, who passed away two weeks ago.

Today, history hails these men for their integrity: for doing the hard thing, the right thing, the courageous thing. Mr. Bhutto, too, met history as many things — presiding over clean elections wasn’t one of them.

So, to the present. The P.M.L.N.’s people are fond of saying their boss is the first since Z.A.B. to have carved out a natural constituency for himself. They should hope the comparison ends there, as their latest run-in with the doctor makes clear.

It’s hard explaining Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri. He’s a nice man for the most of it; a moderate who issues 600-page fatwas against terror. He taught constitutional law at Punjab University, and his charities have helped very many of the deserving. Then, it stops making sense.

He’s a homegrown Sufi, but his hat is from Turkey and his heart is in Toronto. He’s a tremendous public speaker — what he actually wants, or what his words actually mean, no one’s quite sure. His hobbies include wearing a beanie in 40 degree heat, staging sit-ins, and getting banned from Emirates Airlines. He’s a smoke-and-mirrors man, and his fairy dust confuses the canniest.

To say nothing of your average interior minister. When Mr. Qadri was attempting revolution last year, the P.P.P. didn’t bat an eyelid. They went the standard route: deride, deflate, and move on. ‘The Pope has a larger hat, Tahir-ul-Qadri’s hat is smaller,’ snickered Rehman Malik, mauling our brain cells.

But the P.P.P. got away with it: Rehman Malik was brought out to laugh at Mr. Qadri, and the Chaudhries were brought in to lean on him. Courtesy Asif Zardari, Mr. Qadri huffed and puffed back to Canada without having blown the house down.

Then he said he’d come back, for more of the same revolution business. It’s worrying that Mr. Qadri should have such a massive Khomeini complex; it is more worrying, however, that the Sharifs should resemble the Shah.

Part of this is personal: bad blood between Mr. Qadri and Messrs Sharifs runs deep, going back to the time Mr. Qadri held forth at Ittefaq Masjid. The other part is paranoia: the Sharifs have lorded over Punjab since ’85. Challenges don’t become them: not from demagogues rallying in Lahore, and not from democrats rallying in Islamabad.

And on 17 June, in an 11-hour ‘clash’, the police fired directly into crowds of protestors at Model Town. They killed 14 in cold blood, including two women.

Inquiries have yielded nothing. The right heads haven’t rolled. More than any demo in Lahore, it is integral that the families of those men and women are given justice. But as the reports come in, each contradicting the other, even more died on Sunday.

The government has bunkered down: fuel is drying up, containers are everywhere, and policemen with guns tell you to turn back. ‘Like killing a fly with a cannon,’ says the P.P.P.’s Mr Kaira. Mr. Kaira should concern himself with the P.P.P. — for the first time in history, the alternative to Nawaz Sharif is not the Chairman’s Party.

And as this goes to press, Mr Qadri has announced merging his grievances with Imran Khan’s on the 14th. The P.T.I., for its part, should treat August 14 as the last hurrah, and concentrate on governing K.P.

Should the Sharifs’ men stay in meltdown mode, this, too, could go the way of disaster. The previous civilian administration survived a hostile judiciary, a hostile press, a hostile population, and cagey coalition partners. Faced with none of the above, it speaks volumes of our latest democrats that they endangered democracy in a fifth of the time.