BITTER OPTIONS

BY F.S. AIJAZUDDIN

It takes a visit to the British Museum in London to make sense of contemporary Pakistani politics. Only there, in that shrine to unending civilization, in those honey-combed galleries honouring man’s search for perfection, is one reassured that there is a life after life, a tomorrow as inevitable and pregnant with hope as today appears dark and burdened with despair.

It takes organization to arrange a literary festival. It takes extraordinary courage to organise one in London, and that too as a showcase for modern Pakistan. The challenge to the LLF team was clear: How does one present a coherent image of Pakistan abroad assembled from pieces of a national jigsaw that is being constantly jumbled? How does one portray one’s country that all too often lapses into state schizophrenia? How does one mix Pakistan’s rainbow of achievements and yet avoid merging them into a single ray of black? And how does one convince the outside world that within the parallelogram of Khunjerab, Khyber Pass, Thar and Gwadar, talent, initiative and patriotism are not dead but subterranean. All they need, like spring water, is an outlet.

The LLF London chapter became that outlet. It replicated the one held in May in New York. Both were brief. Both were well-attended, not simply by a diaspora nostalgic for their dyslexic homeland but by a number of foreign friends of Pakistan who still admit to that hair-shirt loyalty.

On 29 October, within a day, anyone attentive during the London LLF would have heard a gamut of speakers – the Turkish writer Elif Shafak who speaks (if that is at all plausible) better than she writes; informed and balanced views on the tortured valley of Kashmir; my exchange with Andrew Lycett on Rudyard Kipling and his beloved Lahore which he as a teenager described as ‘a ‘wonderful, dirty, mysterious anthill’; discussions on art, literature, cinema; on geo-politics and internal security, moderated by the BBC’s midwife of TV journalism Lyce Doucet; and a session on the success of the CARE Foundation which today has 250,000 pupils and plans to have 20 million more.

The LLF session was held in the cavernous cream-stone cellar of the Museum, a benefaction of Sir Charles Clore. In his day, (i.e. the post-war ‘50s and ‘60s), Clore made as much money (if not more) from property in London and as rapidly as the Sharifs.

Eavesdropping on the LLF sessions from their plinths above were Assyrian kings, Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese emperors, Japanese shoguns, Greek heroes and Roman deities, Inca rulers, and Mughal princes. Whatever reservations they overheard being expressed in the basement about the current confused situation in Pakistan or, for that matter, in the US election slugfest would not have surprised them. They had all experienced such upheavals in their time. Some survived; others didn’t.

If any of them could speak, they would advise our modern political pugilists to remember that the today’s anguishes are transient, as impermanent as the traumas of their yesterdays. Leaders may be as all-powerful as the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, but even he could not govern from the grave. They may be as rich as Croesus or Clore, but their gold is base currency in the tomb. They may convince themselves that their pursuit of power or their adhesive retention of it is justified in the interest of the people, but no good harvest should be expected from seeds of discord and dissension.

In Pakistan, Imran Khan is determined to bring about prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s ouster. He wants him held accountable for acts of financial impropriety, the latest of which involve kick-backs on the ‘game-changing’ CPEC projects. While Imran Khan is slicing at Nawaz Sharif with a sickle, no one in the PTI has handed him the hammer – a 43 page statement made in 2000 under oath by Mr Ishaq Dar (now Finance Minister and the smug host of the heads of IMF and the ADB), in which he explained the tortuous flows of the financial dealings of his employers the Sharif brothers. Perhaps, like NAB, Imran Khan feels that gunpowder that is 16 years old has lost its combustibility.

Beyond our epicentre Islamabad lies a parallel galaxy: the United States of America. Once the world’s most powerful democracy, it has become more of a modern Janus, the Roman deity with two faces looking in opposite directions. Janus represents change and transition, a new start which is why the month of January was named after him. His temple doors were left open in a time of war and closed when peace was declared.

Crucial decisions will be taken during the forthcoming fortnight. In the US, voters will decide on one of the equally unpopular faces of Janus. Pakistan’s public has the equally onerous choice between vigorous ambition and adamantine intransigence.