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Monday, November 23, 2020

Benarasi thugs and Pakistani politics

The current bonhomie between the Sharifs and Bhuttos, though appearing firm and vocal, is unlikely to go beyond mere posturing.

Written by Rahul Tripathi | New Delhi | November 2, 2020 7:11:58 pm
Leaders of opposition party 'Pakistan Democratic Movement' Maryam Nawaz, second left, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, right, wave to their supporters as they arrive to attend an anti government rally, in Karachi, Pakistan. (AP)

In the aftermath of the dramatic incidents in Karachi on the night of October 18, where drama unfolded with arrest of Safdar Awan (husband of Pakistan Muslim League-N leader Maryam Nawaz) and a host of Sindh Police officers went on leave owning to the reported high-handedness of federal Pakistan Rangers with their Police chief, an equally dramatic act was played out by a central minister the next day. Shibli Faraz, the investment banker turned Tehrik–e-Insaf politician and Information and Broadcasting minister in Imran Khan’s cabinet, gave an elaborate press conference and said that opposition leaders were acting like “Benarasi Thugs” indicating their opportunism and skulduggery. He also kept mentioning their playing to the tunes of the “enemy country” across the border, where their actions had led to chest thumping in Indian news-channels, at the prospect of an imploding Pakistan.

The minister was way off the mark on both the counts. He could do a bit by reflecting more on Pakistan’s own indigenous wisdom on opportunistic politics as well as the perils of over-emphasising the India factor in what has always been a creation of Pakistan’s own complicated power politics over the last seven decades, where the last 12 years certainly appear to be a significant aberration. There are perhaps one or two lessons for India as well for its long-term Pakistan management, which is at present passing through a predictable cycle.

First and the foremost, the reference to the “Benarasi thugs” itself was highly misplaced, which Faraz’s reading of the short story with similar title by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, known as among India’s first realist filmmakers or the I S Johar featuring character in the 1962 movie by the same name would have enlightened him. In the play, the protagonist mourns the loss of his city of Benaras which has seen religion, commerce and greed taking over and the film portrays Johar’s as a character who dupes people with his wily ways till the hero gets the better of him. The situation in which Pakistan’s opposition, recently coming under the banner of Pakistan Democratic Movement and raising the pitch against both Army and the government, finds itself is far distant from the character’s original conceptualisation, either way.

For a country which was getting unusually used to transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another for the third time in a row, history should have been an important lesson. In the last seven decades of Pakistan’s existence, the country has seen more than three decades under military rule. While in the initial phases, military came in as an institution that could fill in temporarily for political instability and then move on to a military directed elected dispensation, in the later years, its role seeped in much deeper into becoming the main arbiter of Pakistan’s internal and external politics, often earning the sobriquet of the state within a state. This role enabled political parties of all hues entrenching themselves in a position of close comfort with the military at respective junctures, political expediency being the major factor.

Zahid Hussain, leading journalist in Pakistan in a recent column in Dawn, mapped this relationship and argued that one major difference between earlier such dalliances between political parties and military and the one going on now is that this time the attack has been too direct at the military establishment. The recent friction between the Rangers and the Sindh police too is being represented as a face-off between the provincial police force and the central force, discretely sanctioned by the military, though tempers have been smoothened following enquiry by General Bajwa. The ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf itself must not forget that the long march led by Imran Khan and cleric Tahir Qadri in 2014 against the Nawaz Sharif government, could not have taken place had the military not preferred to look the other way. Besides, both Benazir Bhutto’s PPP and Sharif’s PML have had their own dalliances with the military when it suited them. Politics of opportunism took such an institutionalised form in Pakistan that some commentators would regularly use the term “Lahori Lotay” or more prominently “Lotacracy” (turncoat/tumblers with round base that could topple either way depending on the shift of political gravity)!

There are no indications this time that the new found bonhomie between the Sharifs and Bhuttos, though appearing firm and vocal, apart from its anti-establishment stance, would wish to go beyond immediate posturing. The next elections are still a couple of years away. Both the parties have their respective shares in the representative structures in Punjab and Sindh, which they know would tumble the moment there is a threat to the national government. The current posturing therefore is likely to continue at a calibrated phase till Pakistan moves closer to the election year. These equations could dramatically alter as the new uncertainties in domestic politics unfurl.

What are the lessons for India in this plot? It is obvious that the Indian government watched with caution and rightly so as the drama unfolded, even as the social media universe and the hyper-nationalist media started talking about a “civil war like” situation in Pakistan. The measured response showed that India is not in a hurry to come to conclusions as far as Pakistan’s internal dynamics are concerned and would rather let things evolve. The name of the actual protagonist in Abbas’s “Benaras Ka Thug”, turns out to be Kabira, who prefers a principle of detachment from worldly excitations. India would do well to remain actively detached from its neighbour’s internal political excitations is the best lesson at hand — at least for now.

(The writer teaches South Asian politics at Goa University. Views are personal)

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