Pakistan’s politics and its television channels run like its sewage and fresh water pipelines. All it needs is for one to burst for the other to become contaminated.
Viewers could almost smell the swill when on 3 March, Pakistan’s television channels aired the latest episode of our continuing political sitcom The Game of Drones. This episode featured a born-again patriot Mustafa Kamal, once MQM’s Nazim in Karachi, 2005-10. Kamal felt impelled to justify to his discarded electorate why he had deserted them in 2013, why he had endured exile in Dubai for over three years, and why he was spurred to return and rescue his country from ruin.
Understandably, the script handed to Mr Kamal did not include answers to awkward questions that flickered across the screen-minds of his audience. Why had he remained so loyal to a party whose leadership he clearly did not respect, nor trust? How had he been able to sustain himself in an emirate that offers no social security to out-of-work expatriates? How does he intend to establish a new political party here with no stem, grassroots or seed capital?
Viewers addicted to such serials will recall that in previous episodes, aired in 2013-14, a senior thespian Dr Tahirul Qadri had played a similar role, mesmerizing (like Shakespeare’s Prospero) an audience of ‘demi-puppets’ over wet days and shivering nights. He exhorted voters, those ‘weak masters’, to overthrow their elected government. Then, on cue, Dr Qadri, like Prospero, quit the stage, moaning: ‘My ending is despair…let your indulgence set me free.’
Mustafa Kamal craves a similar indulgence. He too pleads to be set free from his past performances, to be accepted in a fresh disguise, this time as the catalyst of change within his own MQM party first, then the country.
It is clear that the MQM is undergoing a catharsis. After twenty or more years of decomposition more apparent to outsiders than to those within, MQM loyalists have begun to question its Wizard of Oz style of leadership. Ever since local courts banned Altaf Hussain’s broadcasts, his followers, like disoriented Munchkins suddenly denied the sound of their leader’s voice, languish, baffled by the unnerving silence.
Rumours rumble that Mr Altaf Hussain lies mortally ill in London. That might explain why there is no progress in the criminal and money-laundering cases in which he has been implicated. Could it be that those responsible for pursuing these accusations are reluctant to pass judgment over someone who is already under a natural sentence of death? If so, that would be a ghoulish application of justice.
To some, the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri (the assassin of the late governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer) five years after his crime has been a bitter example of justice delayed. On the death penalty, there will always be conflicting opinions, but one thing is clear. The death penalty is a cruel barter - a life for a life - in which there is no return of goods, no refund. Neither the victim nor the culprit can be restored to life. All that is revived is the memory of the pain, the horror, the injustice of it all.
Have we forgotten already that the namaz-e-janaza of the slain governor had to be delayed because no maulvi could be persuaded to lead his funerary prayers on the lawns of Governor’s House? Or that the Christian girl accused of blasphemy had been offered a premature presidential pardon which the governor was ordered to convey to her? Or that governor’s son, released suddenly on 8 March after being abducted in August 2011, was incarcerated for almost five years somewhere beyond the myopic range of sightless drones and security greyhounds which could not (or would not) find him?
Future audiences will be forgiven for shaking their heads with disbelief when they replay today’s melodramas. They will be intrigued why a COAS needed to announce his departure eight months before his scheduled demise. They will be amazed at the effrontery of a retired president who rules an impoverished province through his sister and an octogenarian vassal. They will marvel at the antics of a Peter Pan of Pakistani politics who can fly boisterously in the air but has yet to learn how to stand his ground. They will wonder whatever happened to the king-makers from Gujerat, seemingly written out. They will grapple to understand why anti-corruption drives found inroads into Sindh possible, but into the Punjab impassable. And in a post 2018 election episode, they might well see a surprise cast: a Sharif as COAS, a Sharif as Chief Minister Punjab, a Sharif as Prime Minister, and a Sharif as President.
In our local tele-dramas, anything can happen. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Tempest waits for its public’s ‘rising senses [to] begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle their clearer reason.’