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Musical chairs is a game designed for children but played by politicians. In the kindergarten a.k.a. Islamabad, an oily cleric, a former president, untested aspirants, even a former chief minister scramble in an unseemly melee to decide who should occupy that last chair.

Those who have sat in it know that it exudes more symbolism than power. It is the modern equivalent of the legendary Iron Throne, featured in the fantasy drama television series Game of Thrones adapted from the novels by George R. R. Martin. Forged on the orders of the mythical conqueror Aegon I Targaryen, the throne was welded from ‘the swords of the vanquished, a thousand of them, melted together like so many candles’.

One character Stannis describes it as having ‘barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up’, and comments: ‘It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Oft-times I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.’

Obtaining the iron throne in Islamabad involves a costly struggle, retaining it a tiring chore, and abdicating it a humiliating punishment. Yet, generations of our politicians since 1947 have squandered their reputations and sacrificed their careers for it. 

Our embattled prime minister seems closer though to Shakespeare’s King Richard III. The king's impassioned cry: “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” has become a synonym for desperation in a crisis.  For the past three years, that cry took on a less dignified meaning in Islamabad.

Called upon to remove his selected Punjab chief minister Buzdar, prime minister Imran Khan insisted that he was indispensable, irreplaceable. He ignored the demands of his former ATM Mr. Jehangir Tareen for Buzdar’s ouster. He refused to heed the warnings of those who cautioned him against such blind loyalty to one whose only virtue was obedience. Obdurate, he seemed determined to risk his kingdom, not for a horse, but for a submissive mule.

The reality of a No Confidence motion in the National Assembly has made Imran Khan reconsider his tactics. Forced to scavenge for allies, he is indulging in the same horse-trading that he condemned in his opponents. His PML-Q ally Ch. Pervaiz Elahi saw an opportunity and moved swiftly for the kill. Buzdar with practised docility submitted his resignation.  

PM Imran Khan, like the actor Will Smith at the 2022 Oscars ceremony who reacted to perceived taunts against his wife, has yet to control his rage.  Another less personal cause for concern is his contempt for organs of state that are not as pliable as former CM Buzdar.

During a public meeting in Punjab's Kamalia city on Saturday, he warned ‘that if Nawaz returned to the country, he would divide the judiciary’. He left it to his Attorney General to placate the ruffled judges.  

Similarly, his ill-considered accusation that ‘attempts are being made through foreign money to change the government in Pakistan’ has a stale flavour about it. Too many beleaguered leaders in the past have used the same dog-eared gambit. The Foreign Office will undoubtedly have to work overtime to explain away this off-the-cuff tirade.

His suspicion of the Election Commission of Pakistan remains too deep-seated to be cured by such palliatives. No political party in Pakistan has ever accepted the independence of the Election Commission. In power, they treat it as a hand-maiden; out of power, they regard it with mistrust.

They should remember the response given by Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to M.S. Gill, then Chief Election Commissioner of India. [Gill was responsible for the introduction of Electronic Voting machines across India.] Gill asked the PM whether he could invite leaders of the opposition parties to participate in the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the CECI in 2001. PM Vajpayee’s sage reply was: “You have to. You are there for all the political parties of India, not just the one in government.’’

Whoever occupies the Iron Throne in Islamabad will have to contend with the realities of an overpopulated, under-educated, poorly-led, easily misled citizenry. All political parties need to learn that spouting speeches that begin with promises and end with petulance can never be enough.

We in Pakistan are not alone in our self-inflicted misery. In the Arab spring of 2010s, a poll conducted in a disgruntled Egypt revealed that the public wanted ‘justice and political stability, lowering prices, and access to clean drinking water’.


This dialogue from the Game of Thrones says it all for all: 'The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.' Except that ‘they never are.'



[DAWN, 31 March 2022]

31 March 2022
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