The ongoing skirmish between Aitzaz Ahsan and Chaudhry Nisar, on the floor of the parliament, has lay bare the pettiness of Pakistan’s political culture. At a time of unprecedented national exigency, when, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, members of the opposition had chosen to support a weakened government for the sake of continuance of democracy, Chaudhry Nisar decides to pick a personal fight with Aitzaz Ahsan. And instead of limiting this partisan bicker to policy issues, the honorable Interior Minister decides to attack Aitzaz Ahsan’s personal and professional history.

This unwarranted and petty attack by Chaudhry Nisar, solicited, from Aitzaz Ahsan, what can easily be regarded as perhaps the most passionate parliamentary speech of our recent history. Aitzaz Ahsan’s rebuttal to Chaudhry Nisar summoned the entire continuum of his intellectual prowess. It had passion, it had girth, all fired through the barrel of wit, and the verses of Pablo Neruda.

And for just a brief moment, while the rest of the nation was still grappling with dharnas and conspiracy theories, Aitzaz Ahsan, standing at the floor of the Parliament, was able to transcend the noise, on the wings of his intellect.

I do not know Aitzaz Ahsan too well. Still, however, being part of the legal fraternity, I have had the distinct honor of meeting him a few times, the first of which was perhaps the most revealing of all encounters.

I met Aitzaz Sb, for the first time, on the night of December 31, 2008, amidst a social gathering of about half a dozen (non-lawyer) friends. The palpable gap between us could not be wider:I had just graduated from law school a few months earlier, and Aitzaz Sb was at the peak of his unparalleled brilliance, in the frenzy of the Lawyer’s Movement. As the night proceeded, amidst the tunes of Tina Sani singing Faiz, the conversation gravitated towards Aitzaz Sb’s role in politics and the Lawyer’s Movement. I was too young and green to be able to speak much. But Aitzaz Sb, even amidst friends, was attacked, from all corners, for supporting a “corrupt” judge, for serving the dynasty of Bhuttos, for defending the hooliganism of Black Coats, and for destabilizing the otherwise “progressive” regime of General Musharraf.

Unphased by the ambush, he fended off each question with a smile, along with rebuttals that knitted together his overwhelming recollection of Faiz’s poetry, Minto’s prose, Iqbal’s couplets, and verses from the Holy Quran as well as the Bible. He spoke about his idealistic concepts of a social welfare State, about a Constitution that was blind to caste, color, creed, and religion. From time to time, with a distant gaze, watery eyes, and humble acceptance of his own limitations, Aitzaz Sb recollected the mistakes he had made, and all that he had lost, along the way. And finally, the night concluded with him explaining his idea of “Riyaasat ho gi Maa’a ke jaisi”.

Coming home that night, I remember picking up Teddy Roosevelt’s biography, and rereading the ‘Man in the Arena’ speech, delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, on April 21, 1910, portions which reminded me of Aitzaz Sb’s account of his own life. Roosevelt said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

This passage is a mantra, an ethos, for those select (elect?) few who have been able to muster the courage of living a life that is true to the calling of their own spirit. The intrepid few who, at the peril of failure and humiliation, have attempted to unlock a higher fraction of their human potential. It is an ode to those who fail, while “daring great things”.

A tempting gaze across Pakistan’s political spectrum reveals that there is virtually no one, in the recent history – since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, perhaps – that can fill the shoes of the Man in the Arena. Pakistan has had its share of khaki saviors and robed demagogues and political charlatans. Each with a disappointing past and a devastating legacy. But none who have known the pleasure of “great devotions”.

None. Except, at least in part, Aitzaz Ahsan.

Did he, as a lawyer, represent Malik Riaz? Yes. Is it possible that he profited from LPG quotas, in relaxation of rules? Maybe (though he denies it).Is it true, as some people claim, that he is guilty of self-aggrandizement? Possibly. Has he ever been party to controversial political stances? Of course.

But let he who was not born in sin, cast the first stone.

He is also (the only?) politician who has actively opposed every military dictator in this country! Been jailed, for his defiance, at numerous occasions. Served as a Provincial as well as a Federal Minister. Represented numerous human rights cases, including Mukhtara Mai. Been the counsel to three different Prime Ministers. And led the Lawyer’s Movement.

To me, however, these ‘material’ achievements are just a small fraction of what Aitzaz Sb represents. The true measure of this Man in the Arena, throughout the trials and tribulations, is his undeniable intellectual genius, coupled with his idealistic vigor. That flight of mind – nay flight of heart – that lends passion to his voice. That faith in Faiz’s verses, that belief in Iqbal’s khudi, that still kindles in his heart and, from time to time, peeks from behind the pain of his jaded experiences. That leap of faith, shimmers of which were visible in “Aik taraf thi janta saari, aik taraf thay chand gharanay”, that Aitzaz Sb is capable of taking, which none of our present-day politicians or public functionaries have the courage to emulate.

Criticizing Aitzaz Sb, in a holier than though tone, by singling out a few events from some 50-year long career, is an act of hypocrisy. Without speaking for anyone else, there is no doubt in my mind that were I to be blessed with a life as full as Aitzaz Sb’s, I would certainly have faltered infinitely more. And to involve such a man, at the twilight of his career, into pointless and personal partisan quibbles, simply to score cheap political points, is a despicable act.

Fredrick Nietzsche once famously said, “The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.” So, Aitzaz Sb, forgive them. For they cannot fly.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.