Great wall of Multan
IF you have been to Multan in recent times you must have seen the bridges that have been erected there and the new, ‘Lahore-like’ roads that have been laid.
You would probably have also been apprised of a certain imposing wall in the city. Earlier this month, President Asif Zardari had to venture out of his own security zone in an effort to ensure that the person on the other side of this wall does not feel so isolated that he decides to cut himself off from the PPP.
Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani’s residence — more the thick concrete wall that has been thrown around it in recent times — means different things to different people.
If you take Jail Road from the high court’s side, a barber’s shop to your right announces the approach of the Gilani house in no uncertain manner. The shop is literally drowned in the PPP’s red, black and green.
The wall that has indeed been the talk of the town in recent years itself has a festive, tri-colour look to it.
The slogan on the outside of the right flank is particularly eye-catching. Here, some ambitious person possessing at least a poetic licence has tried to create catchy lines by a rhyming marriage between ‘Gilani’ and ‘Jani’.
The concrete wall is a memento from Gilani’s time as prime minister. It is a reminder of the terrorist threat the country has been faced with in recent years, finding a rather scary manifestation in the solidified defences around our rulers — just as it creates envy and a sense of discontent among the less fortunate and the more dangerously exposed. Only yards away, there is a car service station. Then there are small shops and amidst them a rather shoddy attempt at setting up a departmental store has, not surprisingly, failed to give impetus to a facelift.
Behind these shops are narrow lanes and small houses. Across the road from the shops is a vast open space used by the army for various purposes, including a spot designated for slaughtering animals for meat.
All these outside realities seem to converge on the famous Gilani wall to deny its occupants the exclusiveness that most of those who are or have been in power desire.
The Gilanis’ house in Lahore would in comparison appear to be located at a greater distance from the public. Ask around in Multan, and you would likely be told the concept of aloofness and isolation that has taken deep root elsewhere is as yet alien to the city and its neighbourhood.
You would likely be told that an effort to clean up the environment by the more worthy inhabitants of the locality could not be undertaken as it could cost them votes.
Clearly down in the city of saints they employ a different formula at getting the people’s blessings than the one which is in vogue elsewhere in the country.
To many, though not all, worldly and spiritual reputations among the living have been well-earned. A few call for a critical probe.
The pirs and the feudals are a source of great discomfort to these critics and if their word is to be followed the Gilani concrete wall should serve as a political metaphor signalling a blocking of the old and the unwanted.
These detractors of continuity are appalled at the sight of a convict accorded a hero’s welcome upon his return from the prime minister’s office — the fear being that the people might repeat their mistakes the next time they are required to cast ballots.
More pragmatic and less ideological souls are not inclined to read too much into the convict tag that Gilani now wears. They are more interested in finding out how ‘Yousuf Raza’ is going to scale the obstacles he wittingly or unwittingly created around himself during his term as prime minister.
The consolidated Gilani house to them represents Gilani Inc. whose objective had been to concentrate power in the family.
This strategy, which resulted in the Gilani family members dominating the scene for some years, went against the grain of Yousuf Raza’s politics which had thrived on small alliance-making that required give and take.
This impression of one-family domination had to be dispelled in the run-up to elections to neutralise the heavyweights who are likely to close ranks against the rising Gilanis.
However, there is a counter image which makes Yousuf Raza Gilani’s presence on the PPP stage absolutely vital. No matter how long the list of complaints may be against the PPP government and its convicted prime minister, one usual refrain still casts the former prime minister as the city’s great benefactor.
‘Only if he had been allowed another six months’ is a line that echoes everywhere as Multanis proudly take the visitor across all these bridges and along all these roads built under the Gilani development plan.
There are a few such projects that are still under way and it is believed Gilani would have surely seen them through had he been allowed some more time.
There are rumours and accounts that should bother the Gilanis, but the developmental-priority argument that emphasises the funds spent on these constructions could and should have been diverted to programmes for greater public good is not very popular in their city.
Indeed, many there would have you think that they didn’t just want this development for their sake but also as revenge on those who had in the past selfishly gone about gifting one bridge after another to their own city and their own voters.
This brings us to the PPP’s main plank where it seeks to first play victim and then saviour, or plays both at the same time.
As the man behind the Multan model, Gilani has a very central role in this scheme. Thus President Zardari’s visit to the Gilani house and his reminder about the value of the former prime minister to the PPP was well worth the trouble.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.