Politics, in Pakistan, is a theatre of the absurd. It is a chaotic tale of conflicting (almost diabolical) perspectives, converging into a plot that has no beginning, middle, or end. And this chaotic saga was at display, in full bloom, at the opposition rally in Lahore earlier this week.
Allegedly, this gathering of anti-PML(N) forces (a definition that does not fully apply to Asif Zardari, who abhors financial accountability as much as Nawaz Sharif does) was geared towards creating momentum for the 14 martyrs of Model Town, for Zainab, and for other faceless victims of our governance structure. However, when the moment arrived, there was far too much testosterone on the stage for any one group to agree with the other.
Let us parse this further, and analyze the precise stance taken by each of the (major) political leaders during the rally.
First, Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri. Being the host of this gathering, at least ostensibly, the stance of Dr. Qadri and his PAT seems to have shifted considerably over the past few years. What started out, in 2014, as a move towards avenging the death of 14 martyred workers (Tehreek-e-Qisas), soon transformed into a self-serving exercise of political ambition for the (spiritual?) leader. There is very little defence that his party can put up for having delayed the trial (still pending in the courts). And there is virtually no reason to start a street campaign today, while it could have been done at any time during the last four years. Not only that, it is hard to say when the Tehreek-e-Qisas turned to a tehreek seeking resignations of Shehbaz Sharif and Rana Sanaullah. And even more elusive is how and when the tehreek seeking two resignations (of personalities named in the Najafi Report) snowballed into a movement seeking dismissal of all PML(N) governments!
Turning to Asif Zardari and his PPP. It is still not clear what part of Dr. Qadri’s move does Asif Zardari ascribe to. Is it just the avenging of 14 martyrs? Well, in that case, does he also want to avenge the deaths of children in Thar? Or those killed by Uzair Baloch in Karachi? Or the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud by Rao Anwar? Or the 250 people who died in Baldia Town, while Zardari was in power (in the Federal and Provincial governments)?
If it is not simply about the 14 martyrs, does Asif Zardari support the ousting of PML(N) government on corruption charges? Yes? Great! In that case, can we also talk about the actual NRO, which his party signed with Musharraf, to bury all corruption cases against PPP leadership? Can we get an update on the issue of sixty million dollars in a Swiss bank account? Can we talk about the Surrey Palace, properties in Dubai, and China-cutting in Sindh? And while on the topic, can we audit the financial holdings of Anwar Majeed and Faryal Talpur?
While such hypocrisy can be expected from Asif Zardari, the most conflicting presence on that stage was that of Imran Khan and his PTI. Lost somewhere in the varied rhetoric of the speeches, it was hard to tell what precisely brought Imran Khan to sharing a stage with Dr. Qadri, and (most improbably) Asif Zardari. Are there parts of Imran Khan’s political ideology that correspond with Asif Zardari? If they can agree on this today, can they agree on more tomorrow? If they can share a stage today, can they shake hands tomorrow? Will that not, forever, kill the anti-corruption creed of Khan’s politics? Will it not strengthen the hand of PML(N), as it seems to have done in the aftermath of this opposition fiasco?
If Imran Khan wanted to protest the 14 martyrs of Model Town, why did he not join Dr. Qadri sooner? If he was protesting Zainab, why did he need Dr. Qadri’s stage to do it? If was simply targeting the corrupt political mafia of PML(N), did he need to align himself with other tainted political forces?
The only person who did not seem conflicted on that stage was the vivacious Sheikh Rasheed. He was loud, he was tenacious, and he was belligerent. All of it, unapologetically. Even after the event was over, people criticized Imran Khan for his speech, and Khan had to defend his use of the word ‘laanat’ for the Parliament. But not Sheikh Rasheed. No one questioned him. No one sought his explanation. Because everyone knows he meant it. And if asked again, he would be all too happy to repeat such words, and supplement them with others. There was no doubt about why Sheikh Rasheed was there: he hates PML(N)’s guts. And makes no apology for it. He is against Nawaz Sharif, and supports everyone who opposes the Sharif family. He does not care whether it is the blood of 14 martyrs that brings down the PML(N) government, or protests for Zainab, or Panama, or the Hudaibya, or some act of God. He will support it, and argue for it, so long as that means the end of Jati Umrah’s reign of power. It was as though Sheikh Rasheed was the only person who wanted to be there. And the rest had arrived under some form of a (hypocritical) compromise.
Much criticism has been leveled against the cantankerous PML(N), led by its new ideologue, Maryam Safdar. And much more needs to be said. An attempt, by the Sharif family, to conceal their financial misdealing behind the veil of public popularity, is unforgivable; no amount of votes can wash away a crime, or justify a head-on collision with State institutions. But, while holding PML(N) accountable for their actions, let us not spare the opposition their political misdemeanor. Let us not shut our eyes to the fact that political parties and leaders must abide by some form of a vision. Some principle that is non-negotiable. And, in Lahore this week, we saw an unwarranted dilution of (already scarce) political ideologies.
It is time that we all recalled an immutable lesson of history: that democracy is not simply a function of votes being cast, every few years. Instead, democracy is a system of government that inspires people about ideological divides. If such divides are erased, in the name of political expediency, all that we will be left with is the chaos of momentary convenience. And such chaos, called by any name, is not worthy of a constitutional democracy.
n The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.