Tactical retreat or total defeat? - Cyril Almeida - January 14, 2011

Source : www.dawn.com

HOW do you fight a fire? Starve it of oxygen. The stoic silence maintained by the PPP in the face of an onslaught from the liberals and the right appears to be part of a plan.

What plan, the liberals are screaming. They`re killing us, slaughtering those who speak out for justice, threatening and intimidating and bullying their way to a deformed, malign Pakistan. If we don`t fight back now, there`ll be nothing left to save.

They may have a point, but the visceral response isn`t necessarily a strategic, or even sensible, one.

The right — the fundos, the mullahs, the crazies, the ultra-right, call them what you will — is on the march. Dealt another punishing blow at the polls in 2008, they are like a junkie in search of the high of 2002.

(Back then, a surge in anti-American sentiment and a dictator looking to shut out the PML-N and the PPP allowed the MMA to sweep to unprecedented gains.)

Then, courtesy some bigots in a Nankana Sahib village, came the spark: a luckless Christian woman was convicted of blasphemy. Blasphemy. Christian. Woman. Instantly, she became a cause celebre for the progressives at home and the West. Instantly, the right had its agenda.

Cue your noisy, and noisome, rallies and protests, your sound and fury. Over our dead bodies! Pakistan is for Islam! We will never let this happen!

It may sound brutal — and with heartfelt apologies to Aasia Bibi — but a nobody from a nowhere village being accused by other nobodies of doing something ghastly isn`t exactly a recipe for building momentum. After the necessary hand-wringing from the progressives and perfunctory, formulaic denunciations from the right, the matter would have slipped off the national radar.

The right needed something more. Enter the brash governor of Punjab.

In politics, as in life, the unexpected happens sometimes. Salman Taseer`s defence of Aasia was not only outspoken, but, given the platform he had, it was phenomenally visible. The fire got the oxygen it needed. Last week it engulfed Taseer.

And since then, there has been nothing but stony silence from the PPP. (Bilawal Bhutto may make the occasional jiyala`s heart flutter, but the young prince`s words carry no weight, at least for now.)

The silence has been so total, so complete, so consistent that you know it is party policy. Say nothing, do nothing, starve the fire of oxygen and live to fight another day.

It makes sense as a tactic, at least for anyone who is familiar with the cacophonous, occasionally brutal bazaar of politics here and who knows a thing or two about history.

The right, historically organised but electorally marginalised, has always tried to vault to greater relevance by hawking the spectre of a godless, secular, westernised left trying to take the country away from its traditional — Muslim and Islamic — roots.

Memories are often short in Pakistan, but there are also some wonderful, gentle souls who are true servants of history. Some of them will tell you about 1970, long before the PNA rabble besieged Zulfi Bhutto.

The left was in the ascendant back then, and old Lahore became a battleground between the religious conservatives and the lefties. Forty years later, there is some hesitation to spell out the details, but it involved some paraphernalia being burned, the usual spurious allegations and a quasi mob or two.

The meta-narrative, though, was terribly familiar: build up the bugbear of the left (today, the `liberals`), then lead its takedown from the right, leaving the right mobilised, energised and popularised.

Fast forward from those halcyon days to 2011, and the PPP silence can be seen in that context.

Nothing would suit the right-wing parties more than another salvo fired from the other side. Fists pumping, bellies jiggling, beards askance, they would bay at the `enemies of Islam`.

Starve the fire of oxygen, though, and it will soon go out.

Add to this the PPP`s fear of establishment-led plots, and, from the present leadership`s perspective, it may make even more sense to avoid antagonising and riling up the right, from where the establishment has often attacked.

So, in the cut-throat world of Pakistani politics, the PPP response may make tactical sense. But does it serve any greater purpose? Does it, in security-state parlance, make strategic sense?

Assuming the PPP has some genuine interest in seeing a Pakistan different from the one the right wants to perpetuate, what comes after the silence, after the latest furore dies down, when there is time and space to think about ways of pushing back?

Looking at the present lot, you can`t help but feel the answer is: nothing.

They`ve got no ideas, they`ve got no plans, they`ve got no vision. Not about the blasphemy law, not about militancy, not the infrastructure of jihad, not even about the culture of intolerance generally. They`ve got nothing.

Which necessarily leaves you wondering: is the PPP`s absolute silence in the face of right-wing fury simply a function of wanting to hang on to power? Power for power`s sake?

And here we end up at the original, bigger problem. Messy, ugly and intractable as the dilemmas confronting Pakistan are, the threats are less worrying than the lack of commitment and will to fight them.

There is no brain trust, there are no thinkers, there is no thinking.

Knowing you want to go somewhere is only half of the problem; figuring out how to get there is the other half.

But if you don`t know where you want to go nor how to get there, don`t be surprised if the right wing hijacks you and takes you places you never knew existed.

The writer is a member of staff.


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