Of messiahs and all
The major league
It was quite a sight watching many otherwise reasonable looking and sounding gentlemen who had been at the forefront of condemning at the drop of hat suddenly turn around and applaud the animated former minister after his explosive press conference on August 28.
Such somersaults are certainly not a rarity in this godforsaken republic. An edgy nation well known for always dreaming of a figurative messiah and a saviour riding in (in slow-motion) from a hazy horizon on a white horse/camel with a sword in one hand, a hangman’s noose in the other and the holy book spread out across his heart; or in the case of Zulfiqar Mirza, on his head!
Not that these dreams about benevolent strong men emerging to deliver justice and honour to the teeming millions have remained to be mere fantasies. Far from it.
From Ayub Khan to Z A. Bhutto to even the dreadful Ziaul Haq, all emerged as saviours.
After imposing the country’s first Martial Law, Ayub Khan was hailed by the majority of Pakistanis for rescuing the country from corrupt bureaucrats, squabbling politicians and ‘dangerous’ Bengali, Baloch, Sindhi and Pushtun nationalists.
The initial hailing of a relieved public only fattened Ayub’s messiah complex, so much so that by the late 1960s the messiah had truly lost touch with reality.
For example, in 1968 even when thousands of students and workers had begun a concentrated protest movement against the cronyism and corruption that had become the mainstay of the man’s government, Ayub decided to spend millions of Rupees to celebrate his regime’s ‘Decade of progress.’
Ayub’s fall mainly at the hands of those who’d hailed him as a saviour set a cyclic precedent that has continued to this day. Take the example of Z A. Bhutto for instance.
A truly popular leader, Bhutto was carried into power on the shoulders of millions of West Pakistanis, expecting him to perform a series of economic, political and social miracles.
Some six years later (in 1977) the same messiah was walking towards the gallows.
Did the country erupt with shame and anger at this atrocity engineered by a wily usurper, General Ziaul Haq? Nope. Why should it? After all here was a new messiah who, unlike Ayub and Bhutto, was waving the holy book in our faces calling it the country’s new constitution.
Those who were convinced that the secular despotism of Ayub and the left-liberal populism of Bhutto had failed to meet the hopes of Pakistan’s Muslim majority, were mighty impressed by Zia’s tough Islamist talk.
They were convinced that it was on his back they could piggyback their way towards making Pakistan an Islamic state.
Of course, apart from imposing certain ‘Islamic laws’ based on some puritanical strains and interpretations of the faith – in the process not only alienating the country’s minority religions, but many other Islamic sects as well – and actually institutionalizing corruption to keep his backers in the agencies, military, business community and feudal circles well fed, Zia soon fell from grace.
His unpopular dictatorship was only held afloat by the wayward ways of a divided opposition, relentless state repression and, of course, millions of Dollars and Riyals that kept pouring in from the coffers of the United States and Saudi Arabia to keep him at the forefront of a convoluted ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan against the already struggling Soviet forces.
In the end it was left to the state to finance and organize a momentous funeral for the once-upon-a-time messianic hope when he fell from the skies after an explosion in his plane saw it burst into flames over Bahawalpur in 1988.
Today the only thing one remembers of him are the seeds he sowed of whose poisonous trees and fruits we are still reaping and, of course, the many jokes that were cracked in his lifetime about his supposed piety.
But this did not stop another military man from getting entrapped by the messiah complex. And how could he not, especially in a country always on the lookout for miraculous saviours.
General Parvaz Musharraf’s popularity ratings in the first three years of his dictatorship (1999-2003) remained well over 60 percent. Surprisingly, this time around very few Pakistanis actually knew as to why they were hailing this messiah.
Here was a man who didn’t know his right eye (liberalism) from his left (propping-up Islamists). Believing he could carry on this cock-eyed charade, he ended up digging his own hole when the military’s own creations (the jihadis and the radicalization of society), sent him spinning to earth, committing one blunder after another.
In the end after facing an all-time low in his popularity ratings, this self-claimed eternal commando was forced to resign and go into exile, abused and cursed even by those who had so proudly voted for him in a so-called referendum in 2002.
As this country continues to look for, prop-up and then discard messiahs, very few it seems realize that messiahs fail because they are only our own exaggerated and mythical projections of justice, good governance and respect.
Interestingly, whereas the major political parties seem to have sensed this and have started to avoid over-promising and getting trapped in the self-destructive messiah complex, Pakistanis have turned to certain minnows in this respect.
These are the mini-messiahs who arrive thinking they can become another Z A. Bhutto but usually end up in a limbo or worse, suffering from a rather sour case of delusion.
But it’s entirely not their fault. After all there is always going to be many young Pakistanis propping up a potential messiah, just like uploading an exiting new song on their Ipods only to be discarded and replaced by a newer tune.
Let’s profile a few well known cases of these mini-messiahs …
A former Air Martial who turned against the Ayub dictatorship, Ashgar Khan became an important clog in the progressive/democratic movement against the Ayub dictatorship.
For a while in the late 1960s, Asghar Khan’s popularity was at par with that of Z A. Bhutto’s.
Asghar reached a popularity peak in 1969. But Bhutto, with the backing of an emergent mass party, a well articulated ideology and a clearly-defined manifesto, eclipsed Khan in the 1970 election.
Asghar Khan’s line in the election on the other hand was simply ‘clean politics,’ but this didn’t mean much to an excitable electorate.
Just when it seemed Khan’s bubble had burst, he was propped-up once again, this time by the right-wing opposition alliance (the PNA) that went into the 1977 polls against Bhutto’s PPP.
He then led a mass movement against Bhutto that triggered Bhutto’s departure but at the same time put the country under its third martial law.
Though a democrat and secular, Asghar had joined a struggle led by right-wing religious parties against Bhutto and then he is also accused of being the man who actually invited the military to take over in July 1977.
Though Khan (through his own party, the Pakistan Thereek-i-Istaqlal) remained in politics till about the early 1990s, he was never again given the luxury of enjoying the saviour status.
Qazi Hussain Ahmed
A life-long member of the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI), Qazi remained to be just another politician during most of his career in JI.
The JI was a staunchly centralised and elitist Islamist party whose leadership and support mainly came from the conservative urban middle-class segments.
In 1987, at age 50, Qazi was elected to head JI.
As the country’s working and peasant classes stuck with populist parties like the PPP, the growing urban bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie (that had began springing up during the Zia dictatorship), gallivanted towards moderate right-wing parties like Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
Qazi soon began manoeuvring JI towards more mass-level politics so it could at least appeal to the rising political ambitions of the new bourgeoisie.
Thus, before the 1993 elections, Qazi put the JI forward as a third, more ‘cleaner and incorruptible’ alternative to the PPP and PML-N.
Through an expensive election campaign, Qazi advertised himself as a saviour so much so that many commentators were sure that JI would be able to win a large number of seats.
But, alas, out of about the 300 seats that it contested in the 1993 elections, Qazi’s JI only managed to win three seats!
Qazi retired from politics in 2008.
Riddled and wounded by a series of ethnic clashes and operation clean-ups between after 1986, Karachi and Sindh seemed to have had enough of parties like PPP and MQM.
As MQM went under the gun of the military and the Rangers in the early and mid-1990s, the PPP’s two governments under Benazir Bhutto began wobbling from corruption charges as well as concentrated efforts by Zia’s remnants in the intelligence agencies to topple her.
Just before the 1993 elections, many newspapers in Karachi and Sindh began running heightened reports about the return of Benazir’s brother, Murtaza Bhutto who’d been in exile ever since 1979.
Benazir at once began hinting that certain agencies were trying to block her return to power by propping up Murtaza.
She might have been right because though Murtaza had been named by the Zia regime in various cases of terrorism (through his clandestine organization the Al-Zulfiqar), his return to Pakistan (after thirteen years) was rather smooth.
Nevertheless, judicial complications delayed his return but he promptly formed his own PPP faction (from Syria) and (according to newspapers of the time) was ‘gaining popularity in Sindh and Punjab due to his anti-Zardari and anti-corruption stance.’
Well, Murtaza’s faction only managed to win a single seat in the 1993 elections and Murtaza’s messianic bubble had burst even before he finally returned to the country in 1994.
Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry
An imposing but apparently reserved Chief Justice who got into a tussle with General Parvez Musharraf. In 2007, Musharraf asked him to resign only to set alight a movement led by the lawyers to reinstate the CJ.
The movement was then entered by both big and small opposition political parties. But it wasn’t until it was popularly adopted by the private electronic media that the deposed CJ began being moulded into a messianic figure who would not only cleanse the judiciary, but also herald in a political and economic revolution!
The movement was initially centered around liberal and democratic lawyers and ideals, but it soon took a rightwards turn when the largely right-wing electronic media entered the fray, mainly reflecting the growing reactionary tendencies emerging within the urban middle-classes.
The CJ was reinstated after Musharraf’s departure in 2008 but the messianic sheen of the movement is now peeling off giving way to a more pragmatic approach.
The ultimate messianic figure, this former Pakistan cricket captain and philanthropist entered politics in 1996 with a brand new party, the Pakistan Threreek-i-Insaf (PTI).
Many observers have compared Imran with Asghar Khan: A clean politician but without the tact of organizing a winnable political party.
Imran entered the fray as a messianic figure right from the start but his party only managed to win a single seat in the 1997 and 2002 elections.
But just when it seemed his career was as good as over, he was embraced by the electronic media, an event that gave him the platform to re-emerge as a popular figure among the country’s new generation of young urban middle-class Pakistanis.
Mixing renegade right-wing ideals with bygone leftist sloganeering, Khan is now being hailed as the saviour that Pakistan needs.
However, parties like the PML-N and MQM have alleged that Khan is being propped-up by the ISI and by the agency’s supposed mouthpieces in the electronic media so he could electorally challenge the mainstream parties that the military and the ISI feel can threaten their ‘strategic’ interests.
They also suggest that Khan is being used as a pawn by those segments of the agencies who want to drive a hard bargain with the US on the issue of aid.
It is yet to be seen whether Imran Khan is able to transform his messianic appeal into actual votes.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi
A staunch PPP member and then the current government’s foreign minister, Qureshi suddenly resigned from his post due to the Raymond Davis incident that saw an American spook being allowed to leave after shooting down two Pakistanis in Lahore.
Qureshi held an emotional press conference accusing his party of bowing down to American pressure. This act turned Qureshi into a messianic figure – for exactly a week or so.
As young urbanites excitedly began dreaming of the emergence of a handsome, honourable and clean politician who can challenge the likes of Zardari and Nawaz, evidence began pointing towards his gullibility to exploitation by the politicised sections of the ISI.
Though refuting the accusations, there was no refuting the fact that in a matter of weeks Qureshi, who’d began imagining himself as a popular future prime minister, was found dangling in a limbo, largely forgotten and joked about and not knowing where his future political prospects lay.
Even more curious is the case of this PPP leader. An animated Sindh minister in the PPP-led government in Sindh, Mirza was also known to be close to President Zardari.
Nevertheless, he turned the ongoing political tussle between PPP and MQM in Sindh into something more personal, loud-mouthing his way to notoriety, especially among urbanites.
Interestingly though, his recent press conference in which he accused the MQM of murder and terrorism, suddenly turned many anti-PPP (even some pro-PPP) and anti-MQM youngsters into hailing him as ‘saviour of Sindh and Karachi!’
Many of them were the same folks who’d earlier denounced him as a ‘scoundrel,’ ‘drunk’ and ‘uncouth.’
Thus, Mirza, at least for some months, can now enjoy the status of being perhaps the most unlikely of political messiahs of them all.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.