111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Only way out of the marsh

In his book Makhdoom Javed Hashmi defines a closing of ranks by Pakistani politicians as a sign of impending military intervention.

The politicians are well within their rights to fight each other but over the last few days it was as if they wanted to use their rivalry as a talisman against a throwback to martial law.

Martial law fears were revived amid unprecedented horror scenes in this battered land. Dead men were protesting in Quetta, 86 coffins fighting for the rights of their occupants to a respectable burial. Left out in the cold by their government and for long ignored by fellow countrymen, these Shias cried out to the army for protection.

Politicians joined their demand. The government was ripped apart by its own allies. The chief minister, who hardly had any presence in the province, was condemned in absentia, and quite deservingly so.

The governor of Balochistan distanced himself from the government and in Islamabad a prime ministerial adviser chose to reassert the obvious tragic truth about Nawab Aslam Raisani’s administration.

The castigation by the PPP’s opponents had to be the most damning so far. Yet, unfortunately, the same kind of frankness which was shown in debunking those responsible for ensuring security of life was badly lacking when the focus shifted to the perpetrators of the crime. Were these killers an unknown entity who could get away with vague references to their cruelty rather than being universally identified, condemned and confronted?

The politicians’ general recourse to the old military formula, rather than to a bold attempt at creating national consensus against an evil, was symptomatic of the fact that while they want everyone else to believe that past outside interventions had no future in this country they are themselves deeply embroiled in old prejudices at unbearable risks.

The war against the terrorists is not ‘our’ war. No matter who is in power, it is the government’s war. And as an uneasy collective of parts enslaved by their own fears and interests they can do no better than wish it to be the army’s war.

This is how it has been and how it is now. This country and its democracy desperately need a broad-based government. This was clear after the 2008 election — and even before that — and it is true today. The issue is how this ideal of a grand coalition is to be achieved.

Five years later what has survived is a tribal-style set-up under President Zardari, which has cost Pakistan five precious years of its life that it should have spent jointly fighting its own war on terror.

Without resorting to the national pastime of demonising the politicians, unless they can start using it for some public good, this so-called immunity from military intervention is of no real use to the people — only a means that has to be efficiently utilised. In its present usage it is akin to the familiar example of a government proudly meandering through to the finish line and claiming completion of its term as credit enough.

Nor are the polls the remedy in the current circumstances unless they can lead to a responsible bonding between seemingly disparate groups on a single, uncomplicated agenda. It is the theory which says the Pakistani politicians are incapable of reaching this consensus which allows actors such as Dr Tahirul Qadri to come up with grand improvement schemes.

Dr Qadri sought the banishing of the current rulers and the replacement of the existing set-up with a reformist interim government — with the blessings of the military and judiciary.

In a true reflection of a helpless command, all the federal government could offer in the dire circumstances was a pledge that polls would be held on time — as if a date had already been announced. At the head of a grand meeting held last week in Karachi, President Zardari could offer a vow but not a date for the election.

The opposition pressure for the announcement of an election date increased with the arrival of Dr Qadri on the scene in late December. Consequently, some contacts were established between the PPP and PML-N, two traditional contenders for power, and that was about all.

The engagement did not betray alacrity while there was plenty of evidence to say that Allama Sahib’s long march did cause a stir both in the official circles in Lahore and Islamabad.

The official emphasis, instead, was on the non-serious. The government officials joined some independent commentators in caricaturing Dr Qadri, which was hard to reconcile with the importance both the Zardari and the Sharif camps were otherwise giving the leader of Pakistan’s latest, and large enough, long march.

Messrs Rehman Malik and Rana Sanaullah were pressed into service in their worst humorous moods. Rana Sana fired the initial salvo, supposedly to elicit laughter at Dr Qadri’s expense, and a few days later, Rehman Malik emerged from negotiations with the march leader as a vengeful man whose ego had been badly bruised.

At a grim time when coffins were awaiting the undertakers, the interior minister chose for himself an idiom that showed him to be angry at the lack of hospitality shown by Dr Qadri to guests sent over by the government.

And if this was not tragic enough a joke, the list was a true galaxy of mediators and troubleshooters in recent years in Pakistan: Rehman Malik himself, the Chaudhries of Gujrat and of course the famous patriot, Malik Riaz.

Rehman Malik has got his share of snubs during his direct association with politics. He can quickly change his tone, like he has occasionally done when he thought it was necessary to sternly remind the Sharif brothers about the legal cases which could be renewed against them.

The injury he suffered at being denied by a lesser politician in Dr Qadri was obviously of a graver nature. So what if hurt were the audience caught between competing jokers?

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Asha’ar Rehman, "Only way out of the marsh," Dawn. 2013-01-15.