Published in The News International
Prakash Jha has made many fine films – last year’s Satyagraha isn’t one of them. To those who have had to bear a 3-hour project go slowly off the rails, one offers condolences: to both Bollywood fans, and the thousands of Azadi Marchers gathered in Islamabad. Both audiences deserve better.
Daduji is an aging reformer – played tearfully by Amitabh Bachchan – who finds himself pitted against the system: evil mantris and lazy fatcats, beating Mother India over the head with their feckless ways. And so Amitabh, more ham than Hazare, cries foul.
He is joined by faithful party workers Ajay Devgan – who as with all his films, plays an honest second banana – and Arjun Rampal, who spends the entire movie smiling dangerously.
Our hero is an outsider calling for satyagraha: civil disobedience. Why? ‘System sarrh gya hai,’ explains another, in a film where writing is clearly not the strong suit. Daduji is egged on by the young and hungry on Twitter, who are great at hashtagging #Janta.
This leads to the single dumbest chorus in Bollywood history, from the same Manmeet Singh and Harmeet Singh that brought us Baby Doll and Shirt Da Button: ‘Janta Rocks, Janta Talks, ab raaj kare gi janta.’
Amitabh turns up the temperature too, by going on a hunger strike. Close to the climax, hundreds of sad schoolkids turn up at the rally, to wish their rockstar well. Daduji stirs himself awake, because after all, it’s the youth that are at stake. He wobbles over to the mic, manages to whisper ‘Bachon,’then swoons to the floor, spent.
The rally fails. The system holds.
But ours may not. To be clear, the P.T.I.’s Azadi Marchers are not teen cultists, any more than their jibe that Nawaz League is a gang of Changa Manga uncles.
The P.T.I. went from nothing to Third Force in one election cycle; it now threatens the P.P.P. as Punjab’s alternative. It’s Pakistan’s only non-ethnic party today – another title belt it snatched from the P.P.P. And as far as our Muslim Leagues go, the P.T.I.’s growth has been far more organic than the test-tube babies General Beg injected into the I.J.I.
Not to forget Kaptaan’s party raises issues that our bullet train boys don’t: women’s participation, rights for the disabled, colouring the environment more green, colouring the police less political.
But yesterday, in what we were told was the speech of a lifetime, Imran Khan went off the rails. Mr. Khan’s speech read creepily like Mr. Jha’s script: a well-meaning core that can’t stay coherent, in any shape or form.
With respect to the romantics, satyagraha is a beautiful idea – a combo of Sanskrit’s satya(truth)and graha (holding firmly to). As its high priest put it, ‘Pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent, but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion […] and patience means self-suffering.’
‘Evoking’ the same Gandhi earlier, Mr. Khan promised the high road too: there would be no storming the Bastille, no trampling the police. Stopping short of Ajay Devgan’s ‘System sarrh gya hai,’ Mr. Khan pulled the plug: the system was a bottomless pit – bad loans and Park Lane flats – and civil nafarmani the only way out.
What sort of civil disobedience, what means and ends? That was made clear as well: not paying taxes, not paying utility bills, and not accepting the governance of Mian Nawaz Sharif. This latest plot twist raises endless issues: one knows not where to start, and even less where to stop.
Firstly, civil disobedience is a slow-burn tactic: a gradual erosion of the other’s authority over months and years, chipping away at a system that’s dug in deep. Deadlines may charged crowds make – they aren’t in keeping with what civil disobedience historically requires: the long haul.
Secondly, the end changes nothing. Supposing Mr. Khan’s two-day tax evasion clogs the machine, and Mr. Sharif resigns; the system still holds. As everyone from Presidents GIK to Leghari have found out, sending the PM home – outside the proper process – is bad for the state. Midnight jackals and overnight dismissals are sensational; they are also self-harming.
Third, the first thing this country needs is to broaden its tax base. Rebelling against paying tax does not pit the P.T.I. against Raiwind, it breaks the Federation. And it’s bad for business.
Fourth, to contend that this government was never voted in legitimately in the first place is a double-edged sword. Saying ‘the system is broken’ should help than hurt: it helped Gandhi fight British occupation, it helped Rosa Parks defy White Might loons in Alabama, and it helped activists rage against apartheid in Johannesburg.
But it will hurt Mr. Khan, because he is a part of that system. His party won 7 million votes in 2013. Yes, votes were stolen (from the P.P.P. too), but the P.T.I. forfeited the right to boycott the day it formed government in K.P. And they should be thankful they did; the P.P.P.’s boycotting General Zia’s election was a fatal flaw: the Class of ‘85 runs Punjab today, the P.P.P. has yet to recover.
Fifth, Mr. Khan must stay part of that system to improve it. It’s the hard slog that changes nations, not 48-hour-flash. Structural reform, progressive legislation, implementation of our old laws – as the learned counsel Hassan Niazi put it – and yes, electoral accountability, are long-run races. Let’s hope that thinking prevails.
To tear our eyes away from the P.T.I., Sunday distressed the left for other reasons too. Pakistan’s tiny tribe of liberals is shaking in fear from the (electorally) as-tiny Jamaat-e-Islami, now led by the smarter, savvier Siraj-ul-Haq. One hopes Mr. Haq is more the late Qazi Hussain than weird old Munawar.
But as the P.T.I. must learn, changing leaders is a very small step toward reforming a rotten body. Even should the Sharifs step down, the families of the 14 men and women gunned down in Model Town may yet not get justice.
And until that day, ‘azadi’ seems a long way off.