Unity for immunity

Published in Dawn

As Pakistan returns to glorious hereditary rule, it helps to listen to Leonard Cohen’s classic ‘Democracy’: ‘I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean/ I love the country but I can’t stand the scene/ …I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet/ Democracy is coming to the USA.’

So it is that democracy is coming to Islamabad, via a 10-party coalition that comes in every shade of the rainbow: a platform so democratic, not a single citizen voted for it.

As to why they showed up at all, we were told the PTI had wrecked the economy, and Unity would fix it. To repair the damage of Imran Khan’s three-odd years, it was thought best to hand the hotel back to the Sharif-Bhuttos – who’d run it for 25.

If that logic sounds loopy, it’s because it is: as Unity’s leading lights now say, the fear was that a new army chief’s appointment in November, plus corruption cases, would lead to an Imran Forever regime, with disqualifications all around.

To see off this catastrophe that hadn’t yet happened, Mian Nawaz Sharif ditched his vote-ko-izzat-dou pompoms, and gave another elected government the old heave-ho. This wasn’t a software update as much as a return to factory settings: Mian sahib is now the all-time gold medalist for helping elbow civilian prime ministers to the ground, at a grand tally of 5; the leaderboard includes Sharifuddin (4) as well as Musharraf, Zia, and GIK (2 each).

Key to this plot twist was the military establishment’s declaration of ‘neutrality’ – incidentally, the tabdeeli sarkar collapsed a month later. The dictionary defines neutrality as ‘an absence of strong feeling’, yet it’s hard not to think of the Saul Bellow novel Seize the Day, where our hero, failed actor Tommy Wilhelm, has to take responsibility for his actions. ‘A person either creates or he destroys,’ Tommy is told. ‘There is no neutrality.’

Yet here we are: neutrality with a capital N. Bowing to the new mood are the royal houses of Raiwind and Larkana; archenemies in another life, their fusion dance makes up the Unity government today.

To their credit, they’ve never once broken character; forget vision or reform or any of the old weak sauce: unity is for immunity. The Sharif-Bhuttos have come back to scuttle criminal cases against themselves and perpetuate their kids. It’s a three-act play, and we’re already two down: NAB has been gutted; electronic and overseas voting mothballed. The last hurrah will be the new chief’s appointment.

What this says about Unity – that they prefer picking the gloved hand to trusting the ballot box – doesn’t flatter the voter. Nor does this cabinet of talents (with some exceptions): the prime minister is on trial for laundering billions; it’s what makes his calls to clothe the poor sound so rich. The interior minister has been hauled up in the Justice Najafi report for the Model Town massacre; he now pads his CV by drowning the country in teargas. As for the health portfolio, it turns out that fighting a pandemic and fighting, allegedly, Lyari’s gang wars are two different things (the only common factor is drugs).

Ever on brand, the same defences of corruption have also followed; that sticky fingers are an over-and-above rental cost we can suffer through. This is a rather charming reduction: at the highest levels, corruption is a mindset that skews an entire state’s priorities in terms of what resources should be allocated where; it’s why we have a handful of white elephants, marching alongside millions of stunted kids.

In fairness, Unity’s entry also demands a postmortem of the PTI’s exit. Mr. Khan’s supporters speak of a lonely leader that took on corrupt dynasts, foreign powers, the sugar cartel’s vampires, and ultimately, the deep state – and paid for it. Less spoken of is the need to introspect: first, the PTI overlooked how critical the parliament was to any ruling party’s protection; something Benazir, and Khawaja Tariq Rahim, sussed out well in 1989.

Second, in a federation that refuses to break up its provinces, the battleground was always going to be Punjab; this was passed off to the shiftless Usman Buzdar. Third, cries of American intervention, while racking up populist momentum, hardly pointed to the major reasons for the PTI’s fall (those reasons remained as local as Rawalpindi’s and Islamabad’s). Fourth, this writer said in these pages that the Constitution had been plainly violated when the assembly was dissolved; we now know this only sped up what it was meant to prevent. Fifth, burning bridges: when the establishment turned on the centre, as it inevitably would (and will again), the rest of the political class – shellacked by criminal cases – dove in to assist with the funeral rites.

All said, perhaps Mr. Khan would agree with his fellow Oxonian, the old chaplain John Trapp, ‘Unity, without verity, is no better than conspiracy.’ Until fair elections happen, and a democratic consensus – centering on parliament – returns, there can be no catharsis for this country.

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