The Siege Within

A maverick cleric, a proactive judiciary and a belligerent Pakistan Army throw democracy into a tailspin again

There is never a dull moment in Pakistan, but the political temperature was unusually high this week; with January 15-17 being most eventful. Sitting inside a special bullet-proof container, a cleric dressed in long, flowing fashionable robes and even more fashionable headgear addressed thousands of people in the heart of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. The cleric, who gave the government "time till tonight" to quit and dissolve the national and provincial assemblies, could clearly not count properly for he kept referring to the crowd as a "million-man march".

In any other country, if a dual-national cleric had turned up out of the blue, demanded the ouster of a democratically elected government mere months before forthcoming General Elections, given an ultimatum to elected parliamentarians, and led a 'long march' to the capital, he would have been dismissed as a delusional joker. In Pakistan, though, things are quite different. It is a country where anything is possible as long as you have the military establishment's blessings. Tahir-ul-Qadri , a Pakistani-Canadian scholar, suddenly arrived in the country with a bang, spent billions of rupees on a media campaign, hogged the airwaves and declared himself "caretaker of the entire (Pakistani) nation".
A Barelvi cleric and founding leader of Minhaj-ul-Qur'an International, a social organisation with branches and centres in more than 90 countries around the globe, Qadri is known to be a close ally of military dictators in the past. He was a legal adviser on Islamic law for the Supreme Court and the Federal Shari'a Court of Pakistan and also worked as a specialist adviser on Islamic curriculum for the education ministry at various times between 1983 and 1987. Qadri's rants against the political class do not come as a surprise. The underlying objective of his long march is to derail the democratic process and delay the General Elections.

The idea is to keep Pakistan's two largest mainstream political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), out of politics and put in place a technocratic set-up for at least two to three years. Some political analysts have been warning the government for quite some time now about the military establishment's fixation with the 'Bangladesh model'. If they are indeed successful in their plans, the biggest losers will be the people of Pakistan who won a hard-fought battle to bring back democracy after nine years of military rule.

The Cleric's Invisible Backers

For the first time in the history of Pakistan, a democratically elected civilian government is about to complete its five-year tenure and Pakistani voters are all set to elect a new government. In fact, 2013 is an important year for Pakistan: The terms of the three most powerful men in Pakistan-President Asif Ali Zardari, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry-will come to an end. Qadri and his invisible backers are trying their best to put a halt to the forthcoming elections. The judiciary has also put its weight behind him in discrediting the government by ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in a rental power corruption case. As a leading TV anchor, Iftikhar Ahmad, tweeted: "This is no coiincidence!! It seems that Qadri knew this decision was coming; it is all a bloody charade!! The sc has just lost the plot!" There are rumours that President Zardari may also face the wrath of a judiciary that is already perceived to be biased against him and his party. Many are of the opinion that stopping this madness may be difficult but not impossible if all political parties decide to unite and put an end to this cruel joke.

Uniting Against the Enemy

There are conspiracies within conspiracies. Rumours are rife that PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif might side with the judiciary so as to weaken the ppp government and to ensure his victory in the elections. But there is one hitch-what if there is a military-judiciary nexus? In that case, the judiciary will stab Nawaz in the back at the end. If the elections are somehow delayed and a Bangladesh model put in place, PML-N and Nawaz in particular will suffer the most politically. Maybe it was this fear of a military-judiciary nexus that prompted two back-to-back press conferences on January 16. The first was held by Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Qamar Zaman Kaira of ppp. Relaxed, cheerful and joking every now and then during the press conference, Kaira ripped Qadri apart: "Qadri says he respects Chief Election Commissioner Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim but also says that since he is an 86-year-old man, he is not capable of checking rigging in polls. So what do you need-Bholu Pehalwan (a famous wrestler) to use force against rigging?" Kaira asked Qadri to renounce his Canadian citizenship and run for elections if he wanted to bring about any real change in the country.

The next press conference was even more important. Nawaz Sharif, surrounded by leaders of various opposition parties, came out in full support of the democratic process. Leaders of Baloch nationalist parties, Pashtun nationalist parties, religio-political parties and others were also present alongside the PML-N chief. The opposition's message is clear: They will not let anyone derail the democratic process and will make sure that elections are held on time. This is certainly a big blow for the anti-democracy forces in Pakistan.

Curious Case of Imran Khan

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan was missing from this opposition gathering. An important political player in Pakistan, he launched his political career in 1996 but his resurgence in Pakistani politics came about when a wave of anti-Americanism hit Pakistan post-9/11 and the war on terror. Urban middle class expansion and social media outreach helped him even more. Pakistan's apolitical middle class is inherently anti-politics. In Imran, they have found someone honest, a heroic figure with whom they can identify with in their distaste for traditional politicians. Last year, he hit the jackpot as people's disillusionment with the incumbents skyrocketed due to worsening economic conditions and poor governance. Imran saw the writing on the wall or someone smart read it out to him. With raging anti-Americanism and no sense of history, the youth of Pakistan clung to him. For the last few days, however, Imran was in a quandary whether to join Qadri's long march or not. On January 14, he tweeted: "We are not joining the march by Dr Qadri because until caretaker government is formed, it is premature. However, what he is saying is our agenda too." On January 15, Imran made a set of demands including the resignation of President Zardari, early elections, a neutral caretaker set-up, and sacking of the prime minister.

There is a new wave sweeping through Pakistan's cities that believes that the two mainstream political parties, PPP and PML-N, stand discredited. Things began to gel for Imran as he formulated a new political campaign with the help of the military establishment that has always been an arbiter of Pakistani politics. PML-N is alienated from the military as it has twice been dismissed by indirect and direct military interventions in 1993 and 1999 respectively. The military now thinks that Imran fits the bill though most analysts do not give him enough seats to form a government. According to some reports, he was under tremendous pressure from the military and from some members of his party to participate in Qadri's long march. Thankfully, better sense prevailed.

Pakistan is considered a pariah state amongst the comity of nations due to its flawed foreign policy, a domain controlled by its military establishment. But then, had the Pakistani military establishment been in a stronger position, it would not have needed a cleric to oust a civilian government. Pakistan's biggest challenge at the moment is to counter terrorism and end religious extremism. Due to its own vested interest, the military establishment has nurtured and supported extremist elements. The recent LoC tensions between India and Pakistan may have been overshadowed by the political turmoil within the country but there is no denying that jingoist rhetoric emanating from the nuclear neighbours plays right into the hands of those state and non-state actors who want to derail the peace process.

Military an Obstacle to Peace

According to some reports, Lashkar-e-Toiba (let) leader Hafiz Saeed is said to have visited Pakistan-occupied Kashmir before the killing of two Indian soldiers. Saeed is accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attack but roams freely in Pakistan. Pakistani courts set him free due to lack of evidence but many believe it is because of his close ties to the military.

While all political parties in Pakistan want peace with India and other neighbouring countries, the military's India-centric policies hamper the path to peace. Supporting anti-India elements like the let and other such groups, the military has proved to be a detrimental force vis-a -vis normalisation of relations between the two sides. A democratic Pakistan will not just benefit its own people but the entire South Asian region. If and when the civilians get full control of Pakistan's foreign policy, they will ensure peaceful relations with its neighbours and the world at large.

Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Khursheed Shah said on January 16 that the General Elections can be held on May 4, 5 or 6 and not beyond that. Now that the government has unofficially announced election dates, political uncertainty will end to some extent. In the face of the unity between the political class, anti-democracy forces might fail this time around but this is not to say they do not have other tricks up their sleeves. The possibility of terrorist attacks during the election campaign or while polling is on cannot be ruled out. Political assassinations could be another option. Benazir Bhutto's assassination in 2007 created a huge political vacuum in Pakistan's polity. It cannot afford to lose another important leader at this crucial juncture.

Leading analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi believes Pakistan's future is both positive and negative. "The positive aspect is that there is greater commitment amongst the political forces to sustain the democratic process. On the other hand, the elements and institutions that are opposed to the democratic process continue to be active and assertive."

When reports last came in, the government had constituted a committee to talk to Qadri and give him an honourable exit by accepting some of his election-related demands which are within the realm of the constitution. If the matter is resolved and the dharna is called off, all sides can claim victory. Qadri can say he has ensured a freer and fairer election. The government and opposition can reclaim their democratic credentials and also gear up to face the prospects of an election they cannot easily rig. And the military establishment can bide its time to strike at a more opportune time. According to most experts, the next general elections will yield a bitterly divided mandate and thereby create another political crisis of the political system.

(Originally published in India Today)


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