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Games some people play

Although electioneering season has not been officially or formally declared open, the political landscape increasingly resembles a period leading up to next year’s scheduled general elections. Political rallies, engineered hastily and as rapidly collapsing alliances, efforts to resurrect some other lapsed alliances and mainstreaming the religious extremist parties sums up the menu on offer.

First the abortive Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan(MQM-P) and Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) merger/alliance. The latter party’s head Mustafa Kamal has spilt the beans after the euphoric announcement of an alliance possibly leading to a merger collapsed within 24 hours. Kamal accused the MQM-P and its leader Farooq Sattar of playing the establishment’s game. In actual fact, as he half admitted later, both parties are creatures of the same establishment. Why was there an interest in and efforts to bring the two surviving Muhajir parties together? Probably the calculation was that it would consolidate the Muhajir vote bank in Karachi and the other cities of Sindh and thereby create room for the establishment to weaken the PPP in its home province and last bastion of electoral strength. The spectacular collapse owed itself to disquiet within the ranks of the MQM-P about its leader’s post-haste decision to join hands with the PSP, particularly over the latter’s rejection of the name ‘MQM’ on the grounds that it was tainted by founder Altaf Hussain’s imprimatur.

The next (simultaneous) alliance to see the light of day and then prove stillborn at birth was the 23-group platform announced by former dictator Pervez Musharraf. The man has to be given a medal for cheek. An absconder from justice (he faces murder charges in the killings of Benazir Bhutto and Akbar Bugti and a treason case), he continues to live in the fantasy never never land of his ‘popularity’. Having tested the waters last time he returned to the country, one would have thought he would have learnt the lesson that his so-called Facebook popularity had no reality on the ground and for good measure was hauled up on serious charges (this may have been one factor in the souring of civil-military relations). The fact that the institution he belonged to reportedly got him off the hook and arranged for his departure from the country would be enough for most mortals. But the commando general has always been long on chutzpah and short on wisdom.

As to mainstreaming the religious extremists, two moves can be discerned in recent days. First, the street agitation by the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) on the omission of the anti-Ahmedi clause in the Election Reforms Act 2017, calling for Law Minister Zahid Hamid’s head, threatening ministers’ families if their demand is not met and threatening to close down the entire country has been treated with kid gloves by the government, fearing a crackdown might provide an excuse for its downfall. Apart from its ongoing Khatm-e-Nabuwat campaign (assisted by the Sunni Tehreek), the TLYRA has spread a climate of fear throughout the country by declaring Mumtaz Qadri, Salmaan Taseer’s assassin, a ‘saint’ of some sort and brandishing blasphemy accusations left and right to browbeat liberal, secular and progressive forces in the country. TLYRA managed to garner a surprising number of votes in the NA-120 and NA-4 by-elections. Representing the Barelvi persuasion, the TLYRA and Sunni Tehreek may have been launched at this juncture to weaken the PML-N’s Punjab vote bank. It is not yet clear whether the TLYRA and the Jamaat ud Dawa floated party, Milli Muslim League, are now registered as legitimate political parties with the election commission or not. In a law abiding society, no group associated with extremism, fanaticism and terrorism should be accorded such legitimation.

Religious parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) have come together to revive their political fortunes and resurrect the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an alliance that brought them to power in two provinces during Musharraf’s reign. This platform, dubbed early in its life a Military-Mullah Alliance, hopes to dent the PTI’s vote bank in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In the meantime, the seeming plan to decapitate the two mainstream largest parties and keep leverage over the third appears to be unfolding. Decapitation in the case of the PML-N means turning the PML-N into just a PML by removing from the political firmament the Sharifs (and Ishaq Dar). In the case of the PPP, the targets may be Asif Ali Zardari and Faryal Talpur. For Imran Khan, a different tack may be in store. The powers that be have used him in the past and will likely use him again in future. However, knowing what a loose cannon he is, these same powers may accumulate cases against him to be used in any ’emergency’.

If the pattern of such political manipulation and manoeuvring in our history is any guide, there appears to be a recurring cycle of the establishment creating parties and leaderships to suit its purpose (eg MQM, PML-N), empowering them so long as they toe the establishment’s line, and then targeting them when their utility is over or they acquire wings because of the inherent dynamic of power. Since the political class is disunited in the face of the establishment’s manoeuvrings, this unequal fight has usually gone in favour of the latter. The present scenario promises little different.

Rashed Rahman, "Games some people play," Business Recorder. 2017-11-14.
Keywords: Political parties , Political corruption , Islam and politics , Nawaz Sharif , Asif Ali Zardari , Altaf Hussain , TLYRA , MQM