Guns and gasmasks, the Islamabad way

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Aamir Qureshi

It wasn’t without incident, so the story goes, when Benazir Bhutto went to see Maggie Thatcher. They met at the Dorchester Hotel, over tea sandwiches and scones (for these two serious ladies, perhaps the lightest item on the agenda).

The ’90s was busy drawing blood: B.B.’s first government had already fallen; Nawaz Sharif’s first was already floundering. The common denominator, Messr Ghulam Ishaq Khan, was closing in again. Pakistan was in for a mud brawl — the prince of Punjab versus the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat.

But whose corner was Ms. Bhutto in? That’s what the Daughter of Destiny asked the Iron Lady.

And so the woman that conducted war landings on the beaches of East Falkland weighed in — of all things, on this latest tussle between G.I.K. and Mian sahib. It was well worth it.

‘Side with neither of them,’ said the Baroness Thatcher. ‘They will use you and dump you. Let them fight it out, and bleed each other.’ Which is what happened.

The P.P.P. would arrive at the same conclusion 21 years later. Today, Zardari and Co. wait and watch, while the right wrestles the right some more. Once again, Nawaz Sharif finds himself at the mercy of a crotchety old man who fights in the dark, is backed by the dark, and will disappear into the dark after all’s said and done.

Once again, Mr. Sharif will lose.

The bad romance between the Sharifs and the Shaykh could fill a dozen Russian novels, but it is a hate that has become bigger than both of them. There is no precedent for what we are seeing on our screens: the Red Zone turning red; the police assaulting the press; babies crying from teargas; P.A.T. and P.T.I. workers pouring into parliament, storming P.T.V. There’s little to make sense of.

To start with the easiest — it’s time Imran Khan drew down. More people are buying his narrative than the state’s; his popularity has soared among the sort of vote bank that had yet to register his name, and the army is ‘facilitating’ talks. That should be enough; this march must end here.

Because Mr. Khan is not Mr. Qadri — while the Shaykh has always been thought close to the establishment, Mr. Khan’s standing will suffer from the same. Second, while ‘Go Nawaz Go’ makes for a terrific rallying cry, it doesn’t make for electoral reform — fresh elections run the risk of rigging as much as before. That requires the long haul: unglamorous T-crossing and I-dotting via parliament, not at its gates.

Third, Mr. Khan’s mass rallies are hurting more than the Sharifs. They’re delegitimising due process. And they risk ruining what Pakistanis endured five years of the P.P.P. for — stable civilian transitions. Mr. Khan may say the system is broken, but it serves no one to break it further. 2018 isn’t too far ahead, sir. Be patient.

Fourthly, 14-day rallies can make for tunnel vision (even before the teargas hit). Mr. Khan started out with wanting four polling stations reopened; he has ended with storming parliament, threatening M.N.A.s with eviction, and ‘parting ways’ with Javed Hashmi over choice of scriptwriter. This Tehreek must step back from the edge, before it’s too late.

To turn to the gent from Ontario; in every serious negotiation, a wise man once said, the man who doesn’t care is going to win. Mr. Qadri certainly doesn’t care — he marshals women and children into crisis zones. He wants to see Nawaz League bleed. He has no stake in the system; he never has.

Mr. Sharif, on the other hand, is the system. It was supposed to be different this time: the sages said the desert sands of Jeddah had sobered him. They were wrong.

Which leads us to the lion’s share of the blame (bad pun unintended). The story of the Sharifs may never be written: lacking in oomph as they are, they remain the least recorded of our rulers; three premierships and seven Punjab governments later, all’s we have is Sohail Warraich’s Ghaddar Kaun, and Mira Sethi’s superb profile for Caravan.

But that’s also because they self-destruct so spectacularly — should Mian sahib survive this somehow, he’ll be less lion than lame duck, at least initially.

As it turns out, Nawaz Sharif 3.0 is the same old software: the same Punjabi patronage, the same six Kashmiris from Lahore, the same fetish for roads and trains and drains. But we’re not in 1990 anymore; the country has changed. Its problems are bigger, its people’s grievances deeper. Its sense of accountability, harder.

And it’s the same question everywhere: how haven’t they learned?

For a man who’s tussled with every army chief he laid eyes on, Mr. Sharif never shies from unbalancing the civil-military imbalance further — in the army’s favour.

There was Section 245. Then Section 144. Then asking the army to negotiate. Then lying about asking it. Then lying about lying about asking. Our eyes may be glued to Islamabad, but our ears are stuck to Rawalpindi. And we have Nawaz League, with its whopping 135 seats, to thank.

The P.M.L.-N.’s reaction to the crisis has been slapstick stupid, and not just with the men in khaki. Rallying sectarian loonies to its cause has sickened average Pakistanis. Its management of Islamabad has pushed them further away — four lives have already been lost.

All the while, Model Town hovers over the proceedings — the sword that doesn’t drop.

Because deep down, everyone knows this isn’t just about Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, or about the virtues of electoral reform. It’s really about Model Town. And it’s about 14 counts of murder. Those counts must carry consequences.

But it’s also high time Pakistan got a hold of itself. The rupee has hit six-month lows, gunships roar over Bangidar, and Modi’s man Amit Shah makes gurgling noises across the border. These are real problems, bad problems, long-run problems.

As of today, we’ve afforded two of those three to the army already: the civilian Sharifs, you see, lack the capacity — a year since winning. The Prime Minister has been asked to resign.

Somewhere, General Waheed Kakar is smiling.