Mar 17, 2009

Fingers crossed

Many years ago and long before I came to Pakistan a British politician called Norman Tebbit caused something of a furore when he asked the rhetorical question, "If you are a British Pakistani which team would you cheer for at a Test match where Britain was playing Pakistan?" I may have paraphrased that, but what Tebbitt was implying was that if you were a Pakistani and had chosen to live in the UK then you had a bounden duty to cheer for England. Understandably, not everybody shared that viewpoint and the row rumbled on for weeks. The subtext of Tebbitts' comment was clearly racist and I found it offensive. (He was later badly injured by the IRA when they bombed the hotel in Brighton where Margaret Thatcher was staying – the British are no strangers to bombings and terrorism.) Last night I found myself, a very isolated Brit in the middle of deepest Cholistan, cheering for Pakistan. The occasion was not a Test match, though it was at one level a trial of strength; but instead my dead-of-night whooping and hollering was at the announcement of the restoration of the Chief Justice. Sober reflection has set in this morning and there is no more cheering, but there is a renewed sense of hope, and that in itself is cause for muted celebration.Much of Sunday had been spent channel-hopping as the drama unfolded in Lahore. The tipping point was very clear, so clear that I had to almost rub my eyes to make sure that what I was seeing really was happening. Two things happened very close together in time but about several miles apart. At GPO Chowk the police stopped tear-gassing the spectators and began to withdraw; and on the other side of town Nawaz Sharif, the subject of a house-arrest order, started a journey whose end even he could not have foretold, though he perhaps had an inkling of what was to come. The government blinked first. The numbers, not all of them PML-N party followers but ordinary Pakistanis who had at last lifted themselves to the occasion, began to look big. Then they looked very big. Then they looked too big to effectively control or manage without bloodshed. What was more; this vast crowd of naturally volatile people went about the business of carrying their protest to the government without much in the way of casual destruction. It was a peaceful procession, with minimal bloodshed, a few bumps and bruises and no loss of life. By the time the Sharif procession got to GPO Chowk it was clear that the government had thrown in its hand. We did not know at that point what was going on behind the scenes, but by the time I went to bed at midnight with the procession well on its way to Gujranwala, something, somewhere had obviously changed.SMS messages at 1.27 a.m. are rarely good news, but this one was an exception. A rather feisty colleague, who I shall call "Uzi" to protect her pristine innocence, sent me a text message that had me out of bed in seconds and firing up the computers and TV's five minutes later. The rest, as they say, is history, of which this newspaper and others like it are said to be the "first draft." I watched the night away, right around to the breakfast programmes. So where have we got to and where next for us ordinary folk?Most of us, myself included, had wearied of the judges' issue. No problem with the principles that were at stake, but bone-tired of the endless twists, turns pirouettes and barefaced lies that we were presented with by way of explanation as to why it was that the PPP had failed to deliver on one of its primary election promises. The PML-N managed to occupy the moral high ground – and found themselves strengthened rather than weakened when the Sharif brothers were bundled off by the courts. We watched as the government began to unravel, prodded by a media that in its electronic arm has much to learn – with one lesson being titled "How not to turn a drama into a crisis." Ministers started to resign, some of them Big Beasts like Sherry Rehman. The international community rolled up its sleeves, took the gloves off and began to collectively smack assorted governmental personages around the head.All of this activity was mildly diverting but nowhere near as important as what happened over the space of a couple of hours on the afternoon of March 15 in Lahore. Ordinary people decided they had had enough. Rather than sit there looking glum and blaming everybody else for their misfortunes, they got up and started walking. Some carried banners, few carried hope and most were burdened with a deep scepticism. Many would have been expecting to taste the tear gas, feel the thwack of the baton on their back. Hardly any would have been expecting to have a sense of euphoria and wellbeing come the next dawn. But I suspect that it was the sight of that vast crowd moving slowly forwards that finally pressed the "common sense" button somewhere deep in the bowels of the government. The crowd was marching as much in protest at the injustices done to them personally as they were to the injustices done to justice. They are doubtless pleased that Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is to be restored to his position on March 21, but they may be more pleased that somebody somewhere actually listened to them, and, having listened, took action as appropriate. From their chants it was clear that whilst judges were one item on their agenda, presidents were another and the long march was a snapshot-referendum of the public mindset regarding President Zardari…and "Go, Zardari Go" rolls a little more easily off the tongue than does "Restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Chadhry."It is easy to lose sight of us ordinary folks in the middle of all the grand strategy, and the debasing of the political coinage over generations has done nothing to give voice to the common man. On Sunday the common man found his voice and the electronic media projected it for him into the corridors of power; his voice was the sound made by tens of thousands of shoes as they hit the ground, and the flapping of a rainbow of political banners. Now the parade has gone by. Islamabad is quiet, awaiting a celebratory party perhaps, and there are meetings planned between the feuding politicos who brought us all to this sorry pass. The containers to be used for barricades are disappearing, the flags being furled and stood in the corner. The sceptic in me wonders if the promise of restoration is no more than a ploy to defuse a situation that was not playing out to the advantage of the government; a clever ruse that would deflate the Sharifs in short order and buy a few more days of political time. My fingers will remain crossed until I see the CJ actually take the oath on March 21 and right a fundamental wrong in doing so. And if it does happen? Then you will hear me cheering for Pakistan, and proud to do so.

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