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06/07/2023
RAMA'S SANDALS
ON POLITICAL SURROGACY


 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi should seriously consider visiting Islamabad soon. He will find a number of kindred Ramabhakts there.

For those unfamiliar with the Hindu epic Ramayana, Rama (the eight incarnation of Lord Vishnu), surrendered his kingdom in obedience to a rash promise made by his father King Dasaratha. Rama quit the royal capital of Ayodhya and went into exile for fourteen years, entrusting the administration of his kingdom to his younger half-brother Bharata. 

Pleading unworthiness, Bharata nevertheless agreed but asked Rama for his sandals to be placed on the vacant throne.  He declared to the people of Ayodhya: ‘Accept the sandals as symbols of the feet of the Exalted One! Through these sandals belonging to my superior shall righteousness be established in the kingdom […] When he comes once more to Ayodhya, I shall fasten them to his feet, and, casting my burden upon him, in making over the kingdom to him, I shall serve him’.

In Pakistan’s politics, there are too many examples of such political surrogacy for them not to be interpreted as a pattern.

The preeminent case is, of course, of the Sharif brothers. The elder brother Nawaz Sharif went into exile in 2019, leaving his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif to administer their PML-N on his behalf. Even though now Shehbaz is prime minister in his own right following the ouster of Imran Khan through a no-confidence motion, he still holds out he is acting only as his brother’s proxy, waiting for his return before returning the prime ministership to him.

Many suspect that Nawaz Sharif may not want to become a fourth-term prime minister. Others question Shehbaz Sharif’s altruistic intentions. He seems to be enjoying the perks of his position too much to hand them over without a frown. At another level, both would like to see themselves succeeded later rather than sooner by their children – Nawaz by Maryam Safdar and Shehbaz by his son Humza.

In the PPP, Asif Ali Zardari, who served as Pakistan’s president (2008-13), is content to dumb-down as an MNA and share the steering wheel of the party with his son and Benazir’s heir Bilawal. It may be too early for him to negotiate the prime ministership for his son before the next general election. He might conceivably expect it as their share of the post-election spoils.

In the Aiwan-e-Sadr [Presidency], the present incumbent has never pretended to be anything more than Imran Khan’s sandals – a PTI apparatchik, there to do his leader’s bidding.

Within the PTI, the decimation of its top hierarchy (one can hardly call it ‘leadership’, so precipitous and callous was their betrayal) has left its Senior Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi as its reluctant spokesman. He is yet to be anointed successor pro temp by Imran Khan. For the time being, he seems to be content to use his leader’s sandals as the symbol of absent authority.

Peripheral political parties like the PML-Q struggle to secure a foothold of relevance for their sons or nephews. The newest party – Jahangir Tareen’s Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party / Pakistan Stability Party – was established as recently as June 2023. Tareen, exiled by law from politics, as IPP’s patron-in-chief nominated Aleem Khan as its first president and accommodated other escapees from the PTI in senior positions.  To those with experience of such make-shift hotchpotch, the IPP appears to its opponents less a fearsome adversary than a war-weary ‘forlorn hope’.

The battle for power in the next general elections is strangely reminiscent of the recent shenanigans in the Ukraine. There, Putin’s bulldog mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin threatened to bite the hand that had been feeding him, unless his master fed him some more. Then, bought off by Putin with uncountable millions, Prigozhin suddenly abandoned his march on Moscow and, decamping to Belarus, betrayed his cannon-fodder mercenaries in the field.

One is reminded of Leon Trotsky’s cutting observation about the French intellectual poseur André Malraux: ‘Malraux is organically incapable of moral independence; he was born biddable.’

The outcome of the next general elections will depend not on electables but on biddables.  It is rumoured that, already, the two major parties within the ruling PDM alliance are squabbling over the trillions they can divert from the state treasury into their war chests.  Democracy comes at a price, and the price for these swing constituencies is still under negotiation.

The recent helicopter trip to Parachinar by the civilian and military leadership together to celebrate Eid with the jawans defending the extremities of our country was more than a joint tribute to their bravery. The optics emphasised one thing:  the present PDM coalition government (as long as it lasts), and its successor (however long that lasts) will have to be the Bharata in the civil-establishment relationship. Rama’s ever-present sandals remain more than a metaphor.

 

©  F. S. AIJAZUDDIN 

 

[DAWN, 6 July 2023]

 
06 July 2023
 
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