Notebook: Big-hitting premier puts his spin on a war that never was

In Pakistan, it is safest not to probe too hard beneath the benign surface
Click to follow
The Independent Online
I am back in Pakistan after an interlude of five months. The last time was a lark: arriving with a planeload of over-excited Indian journalists coming to Pakistan for the first time, to watch their Prime Minister clinch a beautiful though improbable peace with the old enemy.

Imagine if half of southern England had become an independent and hostile state 50 years ago, with families divided and visits banned. It was like flying into Tunbridge Wells in the company of a crowd of people whose parents were born there but who had only heard about it at second hand; the emotion a weird, unstable mix of intimacy and distance, knowledge and curiosity, hostility and longing.

It might have turned nasty. But however flimsy (and now we know exactly how flimsy) the deal enshrined in India and Pakistan's Lahore Declaration, the warm emotion on both sides was real. I have never been in any airport where Immigration and Customs were more kind and solicitous. Here were all these Punjabis, Indian and Pakistani (Punjab was cut in half at Partition) being elaborately nice to each other.

Five months, 1,000 dead soldiers and a great deal of anger and suffering intervene. Lahore is the same place, still the jewel of the Raj, still dominated by the stately, splendid boulevard of the Mall, with opulent neo-classical mansions on either side set in gardens as big as parks.

Today's paper tells me that Pakistan is ranked 138th (out of 174 countries) in the Human Development Index. But Pakistan is much more zealous than India in keeping up appearances. Lahore gleams and sparkles in the 45C heat. The roads are brimming with newish cars. Even the three-wheeled autorickshaws, the poor man's cabs, are painted and tricked out with loving care. The roads have no potholes. The city has a new fleet of buses. What can possibly be wrong?

Pakistan, this impoverished country, has just lost a war in Kashmir. But it is a war which the government will not admit that it has fought: Pakistani troops did not seize Indian territory, they insist, only mujahedin, Islamic warriors, did that. And that denial, in the teeth of what all neutral observers believe to be true, is of a piece with all the other illusions of Pakistan.

It's a sort of immaculate mirage. Like Jim Carrey's character in The Truman Show, one starts testing the edges of the illusion for weaknesses, seeking flaws that will betray the unreality of the whole project. It's hard. Room service is prompt and smiling. The water in the pool is nicely chilled. The small, quiet headlines in the newspaper amount to no more than a polite mumble.

I make the rounds of the opposition with an old friend, a local journalist. We meet a courtly former Cabinet minister who now heads an alliance of small parties. He would have trouble projecting himself as tomorrow's man: he is well into his 80s. He gives me a long history lesson, concluding, "the whole Pakistani nation has rejected the Washington declaration" - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's decision to end the Kashmir war by withdrawing his forces.

The former minister, who smokes Benson and Hedges and drawls like an earl, gives me an excellent lunch in his baroque home. Two sitting MPs of his party in brilliant white kurta pyjamas eat with us, hulking, bearded fellows who say barely a word in any language. There is a feudal mood to the proceeding; these MPs must be retainers of some sort.

The only reality I keep running up against is incarceration. My friend blurts out to the ex-minister that he was jailed during the latter's period in office. The minister makes concerned, regretful noises. My friend was picked up and held again recently. During Mr Sharif's last term in office, a prominent journalist was charged with sedition for publishing a poem. These days they no longer bother with charges, even silly ones: Najam Sethi, editor of the Friday Times, the only paper in Pakistan devoted to debunking the government, was merely chucked in the slammer.

But it is easy to avoid getting locked up: just go along with the mirage. Do not lay into the government, especially the Prime Minister. Do not dream of making fun of him! Repeat the government's lies - or if you query them, do so vaguely, quizzically; make it clear that you are not looking for anything so problematic as the truth.

Every Saturday Mr Sharif plays cricket at Lawrence Gardens in Lahore, a pretty, well-watered ground, shaded by mighty trees. Yesterday, the President of Pakistan sacked the sport's governing body after allegations of indiscipline and match-rigging which dogged the team during the World Cup. But Mr Sharif's approach to the game also has its peculiarities.

This is the way he plays: he neither bowls nor fields, only bats. It is said that he normally scores about 50. The bowlers deal him a succession of long-hops and half-volleys. When he skies the ball, fielders trip over their laces, get blinded by the sun, collapse from heatstroke - anything to avoid a catch.

It's a ritual worthy of a modern Islamic monarch, and Mr Sharif is well on his way to acquiring absolute power in Pakistan. But although the illusion is perfect and beautifully maintained, one feels that it could disappear at any moment, almost without warning.