Pakistan: Of sieges & stooges
The ground is shifting in Pakistan again. In a few weeks — if not days — the five-year-long experiment that has seen a fledgling democracy take root in a hitherto largely militaristic soil, could well be uprooted.
In a carefully crafted bid to transplant a malleable caretaker government in place of the — in the military’s eyes — completely unacceptable elected government, the military establishment will throw everything it has and then some, into the mix, to upend the democratic process and regain overall control.
This will be the last and final throw of the dice to take control of Pakistan’s polity that, in the establishment’s eyes, has been given too much of a free run. Whether this is done with the explicit acquiescence of Washington is not clear yet. India can only wait and watch as the powers that be throw sand in our eyes. Kashmir, terror… you name it.
Clearly, it will be a minor miracle if the storm clears and general elections are held at all. Most observers in India who want democracy to succeed in Pakistan — and the five-year-long thaw to continue — have noted the closing of ranks by the two main political parties.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), are all too alive to the threat posed by the military, which tested the waters by throwing a maulana — the little known Tahirul Qadri — onto the chaotic Pakistani chessboard, where there is now a complete re-ordering of rooks and knights.
Mr Sharif, in all probability the chief beneficiary of anti-incumbency against the Zardari-led PPP if elections are held, is quietly holding indirect parleys with cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who, as it is increasingly obvious by his lacklustre march to Fata recently, may have peaked too early.
As unconfirmed reports trickle in of Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani reaching out to Mr Sharif, the former Prime Minister’s camp insists it’s a move to discredit the one man who has stood steadfast against the Army’s coercion and guile to make the standout politician toe the line.
Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari know that in a real election, neither Mr Imran Khan nor Mr Qadri will pose a real threat, make more than a dent in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. And the Punjab strongman has already let it be known that any move to scrap elections will see him mobilise the PML(N) cadres — second only to the PPP — as he did when he returned to Pakistan, when he ended his exile.
Mr Qadri, whose close links with former President Pervez Musharraf have been conveniently glossed over, is a four-day wonder. Certainly no Sufi saint, let alone a Pakistani Anna Hazare.
But he is Mr Musharraf’s cat’s paw. Under the benign eye of some of the second-rung generals who are against the one-year extension being sought by Gen. Kayani, Mr Musharraf, will, in all likelihood, end his self-imposed exile next month, hoping to be projected as the face of an Army-managed “civilian” dispensation; or propping up his end of a caretaker government.
The maulana, in fact, with his giddy, flag-waving members of the apolitical quasi-religious body, Minhaj-ul Quran, tied to his own Pakistan Awami Tehreek party, was thrown into the mix to gauge the people’s readiness to change its leadership. The same maulana, let’s not forget, who stood for elections under the banner of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) — which, no surprise, has secreted itself into the ruling PPP alliance — when Mr Musharraf was El Presidente, only to fade away when his own Barelvi sect came under the attack of the strident Deobandi Taliban. That’s the homegrown Taliban reserve which, like the newly resuscitated Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which massacred hundreds of Hazara Shias in Balochistan, is unleashed whenever deemed necessary.
Pakistan can expect more such killings and upheaval in the coming weeks, bringing to a head the clamour for change among the ordinary Pakistani, exhausted with a civilian administration that is seen as corrupt and, worse, inept. Its new Prime Minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, bestowed with the moniker “Raja Rental” for his dodgy power deals is the focus of the people’s anger. And of course, there’s President Zardari, seen as the very fount of corruption. Although as Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, noted Pakistani author of Military Inc. Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, and commentator said, “How do we weigh Mr Zardari’s corruption, do we know if he was more corrupt than Musharraf’s government or any other military government.”
She also points to a predictable military-civilian-military cycle, and Pakistan’s shadowy guardians bringing in malleable “king’s parties” with no grassroots support, every time popular politicians like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (used by the establishment to cut the PPP down to size) emerge to challenge the military’s hold over the country. Except, the Army takes control during a crisis, becoming the beneficiary of the munificence of Washington, and exiting when the crisis abates, leaving civilian governments with the impossible task of cleaning up the mess the military leaves behind.
Pakistan is clearly casting its net for a saviour. Whether that man is someone who works in tandem with the establishment or is deeply antithetical to the Army as Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari are, will make little difference.
The Pakistan that we see remains caught in a never-ending storm. There’s no rainmaker. Its ambitious military, long used to calling the shots, is unwilling to sit on the sidelines. Until it can be persuaded otherwise, the Army on our western border, poised to see its Afghan strategy pay off after a 10-year waiting game and seeking to whip up its popularity in the east by flogging the dead Kashmir horse, will play the destabilisation card for all its worth.
In India there will be little respite from skirmishes on the border threatening a promising thaw, and a predictable, if unchanging narrative, informed by an internal dynamic that sees one arm of power constantly seeking to undermine the other.