View from Pakistan: Unfit to lead

Surely, all of that is only done by someone sensing a fundamental challenge to their rule

Karachi: It’s happening. It really is. Scorched earth. Pyrrhic victory. Cutting off nose. Shooting in the foot. The custodians of democracy have done what the anti-democrats wanted. Lahore feels like a war zone. Fuel is unavailable. Roads are shut. Folks are scared. Nobody really cares who wins — they just want it to stop.

It needs to stop. It will stop. It always does — and in the end, it will be the democrats who will have struck another grievous blow against democracy.
Nawaz Sharif and co. have taken their obsession with Punjab and done to it what any combination of ego, paranoia and obsession will do. The problem with democracy is its fragility — without a population that believes in it, without institutions that believe in it, without politicians who really care about it, it doesn’t survive. Sometimes it limps on, like it did under Asif Ali Zardari and may now under Sharif. But continuity means little when the present is populated by sins egregious and stunning.

Who is Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri? He’s the Mansoor Ijaz who won’t go away. Remember Mansoor Ijaz? Exactly. Qadri would have gone the same way, a speculator always angling for relevance but fundamentally irrelevant. Qadri will slide back into irrelevance again, but this time he’ll take a fistful of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) flesh with him. We have to wait and see if the flesh is Nawaz’s scalp.

By now we know: Nawaz thinks Qadri is a threat. Let’s drop the pretence — always weak anyway — that the squeeze on Qadri and his supporters was authorised and prosecuted from anywhere but the top. The PML(N) is doing silly things to Qadri, and to Punjab’s hapless citizenry, because Nawaz wants dumb things done to Qadri — and Nawaz doesn’t care that Punjab’s hapless citizenry is caught in the middle. But why is Nawaz willing to inflict pain on his beloved Punjab to fight Qadri? He’s fighting for something, this Nawaz is. Understanding it doesn’t mean accepting it. Shutting down Lahore. Closing off that great pride and joy, the motorway. Making Lahoris doubt their affection for Mian Sahib. Denying privileged Lahore its basic services.

Surely, all of that is only done by someone sensing a fundamental challenge to their rule. It’s not that the collateral damage is neither perceived nor recognised; it’s that the collateral damage is deemed acceptable, necessary even, to achieve the goal. The goal is first and always — survival. Why is Qadri a threat to Nawaz’s survival? Because he’s rabid, he’s got a base of committed supporters in Punjab and he’s in the boys’ camp.

But sometimes the goal is survival plus something else. The victory, pyrrhic or not, sends a message across the land: mess with Nawaz in his Punjab and he will snarl and snap and fight you before you can fight him. That raises the cost for anyone who wants to snatch the throne. For the boys, it means the veneer of deniability, staying tucked away out of direct sight, won’t work. They’ll have to come out into the open, launch a more direct, frontal assault themselves if they want Nawaz out now. That carries its own risks and raises the costs for the boys.

For civilian aspirants, facing the brunt of the civilian-run security and administrative apparatus means you’ve got to have enough muscle of your own. Resources, men, women, camps, coordination centres, an A team and a B team. Those kinds of options exist with only a handful of challengers. And anyone among them having the same thoughts as Qadri will have to think twice, and then twice more, if they want to take on Nawaz. And all of this Nawaz is willing to sanction because his greatest asset is also his biggest vulnerability. Having nothing politically — nothing meaningful anyway — outside Punjab means he has to dominate Punjab.

Punjab can’t be shared — the middle class, urban, conservative parts of Punjab — because sharing Punjab would mean no route to power, both at the provincial level and, most definitely, in Islamabad. So fight, fight and fight Nawaz will. Any attack that comes from the conservative, establishment sections of Punjab, Nawaz will whack. The problem is, he’ll always lose. Maybe not in the first round or the second this time, but, eventually, he’ll lose. Because he’s playing dirty from the wrong side of the pitch. A general the public knows will do dirty things. A power-hungry civilian outsider the public knows will stop at nothing.

But neither of those options needs the public to grab power. They don’t have to go to the public, cap in hand, head bowed and ask for their vote.
Nawaz is nothing without electoral legitimacy, without political capital and without the public’s backing. Well, without them he’s just a super-rich guy who was Prime Minister once. Which is essentially nothing. And yet, here he is, sacrificing his political capital in his hometown to fight an enemy who keeps goading Nawaz into shedding more and more of his democratic armour, leaving him more and more vulnerable to attack in the arena of power politics.

Is he really stupid? Is his ego simply too big? Is his paranoia too deep-rooted? Has hubris simply taken over? Or, simply, is Nawaz unfit to govern Pakistan? Walk around Lahore this weekend — driving being difficult even on empty roads because fuel is near impossible to find. There’s police with guns everywhere. Fearful customers are raiding store shelves for basic supplies.

A bewildered citizenry is wondering where this political storm came from and why they’re caught in the middle of it. This is Lahore. In 2014. This is the heart of Sharif’s Pakistan. In 2014.

Yes, this weekend, it does look like Nawaz is unfit to lead Pakistan.

By arrangement with Dawn

( Source : dc )
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