Triad of Trouble

Nadeem F Parachais a Karachi-based columnist with Pakistani newspaper Dawn
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Pakistan’s experiment with democracy is as incendiary as ever
Former Pakistan cricket-captain- turned-politician Imran Khan, is not budging. He, along with ‘moderate’ cleric, Tahir ul-Qadri, has been holding dharnas (sit-ins) in some of the most sensitive areas of Pakistan’s seat of government, Islamabad. Khan leads the centre-right, Pakistan Tehreek-e- Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement), a party that he formed in the mid-1990s but which (almost suddenly) shot into prominence in late 2011, a good 15 years after its formation.

Khan and Qadri have been conducting their respective sit-ins with their supporters for over 20 days now and have vowed that they will not move until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hands in his resignation. As tensions mount, bouts of fatigue are paralleled by rousing speeches by Khan and Qadri, thick with rousing ‘revolutionary’ clichés and angry tirades against ‘Pakistan’s fake democracy’. At least two major clashes between the protestors and the police have already taken place. The first clash occurred when both the leaders asked their supporters to shift the sit-ins outside the Prime Minister’s offices. Police fired numerous rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at the advancing protestors. At least three men were killed and dozens injured which also included some cops who were beaten up by the protestors.

The government and members of other opposition parties accused Khan and Qadri of using women and children as ‘human shields’—an accusation both the leaders denied. The protestors were finally pushed back and the sit-ins ended up stationing themselves outside the impressive white structure of the Pakistan Supreme Court.

The area now looks like a disaster site. Litter began to pile up and diseases and viruses were reported to have engulfed many men, women and children who were camped there. A few days after the first clash, the protestors suddenly began to move towards the headquarters of the country’s state-owned television channel, PTV. Dozens of men, carrying clubs and sticks, barged into the building and began to rampage their way across its many rooms and studios, halting the transmission of various PTV entities, including its international channel, PTV World. After about 20 minutes of mayhem, the protestors agreed to vacate the premises when soldiers belonging to the Pakistan Army arrived and sealed off the building.

The army has been given the task to protect the many state and government buildings in Islamabad, but so far the soldiers have mostly kept an eye on the protestors from the sidelines. In an angry editorial, Pakistan’s leading and respected English daily Dawn criticised the military leadership of remaining vague in its stance; a stance, the editorial lamented, that was actually encouraging certain ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘undemocratic’ ways of Khan and Qadri.

Both these men have denounced the government of Nawaz Sharif, levelling allegations that it came to power through a rigged election. Though the election took place in May 2013, Khan and Qadri decided to protest against the results more than a year later. This has triggered the now widespread belief among their detractors that Qadri and Khan have the backing and support of certain influential remnants of the dictatorship of General Parvez Musharraf and of even some serving military men who see Nawaz Sharif as a threat to the economic and political interests of the country’s powerful armed forces.

The president of Khan’s party, the PTI, Javed Hashmi, was recently ousted by Khan when Hashmi broke away from the protests and—in a dramatic press conference—insinuated that Khan was acting on the instructions of some displeased army officers, both retired and serving. Khan and Qadri were quick to deny the allegations and so did the official media wing of the Pakistan Army, the ISPR. Nevertheless, most interesting has been the stance adopted by the all-powerful army chief, General Raheel Shareef.

If sundry analysts and ‘defence experts’ are to be believed, then the General is not so keen on what transpires in Islamabad. It should be noted that General Raheel, who took over from General Kayani, has exhibited a desire to change some characteristics of the country’s armed forces. Known as a candid and professional soldier, General Raheel, it is believed, is squarely focused on turning the forces into a well-oiled fighting machine, untainted by the amorality of power politics. A BBC profile on him that appeared on the day he replaced Kayani suggested that it was General Raheel who is one of the main architects of the new narrative emerging within the armed forces that now squarely places internal threats (such as extremist militant insurgencies) as being almost as menacing as the conventional external threat faced by the country by its long-time foe, India. Consequently, General Shareef did not waste much time in launching a full-scale military operation against extremist insurgents holed up in the country’s rugged northwest areas. His decision in this context was mostly prompted by the brutality with which these insurgents had begun to attack soldiers and officers (apart from civilians and policemen).

The claims of Khan’s detractors who accuse him of being a ‘military puppet’ get somewhat complicated when one is faced with the following: the military’s narrative of the threat from extremists is certainly changing, but Khan’s stance in this context has remained more or less the same. He has been a vehement opponent of a military operation against militants; so much so that over the years many of his critics have also gone on to accuse him of being a sympathiser of extremists! Of course, Khan denies this and has often blamed some of his opponents in politics and the media of ‘distorting his image with such propaganda.’

Even more interestingly, till the point when General Raheel finally decided to move forward and initiate an operation, the views on this of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)—the party Khan unabashedly detests—were quite similar to those of Khan.

The PML-N and PTI can both be slotted in the centre-right pigeonhole of conventional politics, and they had come down hard against the former coalition government of the centre-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP), and the liberal Muttahida Qaumi Movment (MQM), for undermining the option of holding a ‘sincere dialogue’ with the militants and for encouraging a military operation.

After winning the 2013 election and forming a majority government at the centre, the PML-N managed to generate a consensus among all parties and the military to ‘give peace a chance’. Several rounds of dialogue were held with militant groups, but as attacks on security forces continued, the talks finally collapsed and the Nawaz Sharif government reluctantly green-lighted the military’s insistence that an operation alone was the only option left.

Khan has only rarely mentioned that operation in the many speeches he has made at his sit-in. Neutral observers often consider him a naïve but ambitious character who unwittingly allows himself to be played as a pawn by those who have a lot to lose if the current strain of democracy stays dominated by mainstream parties such as the PML-N, PPP and others. Khan’s support mainly comes from Pakistan’s urban middle-class or a section of it that may be termed ‘the blocked elite’. This includes a growing number of urbanites who in the last decade or so have managed to gain economic and social influence through the business-friendly policies of the Musharraf regime (1999-2008) and assertive private TV channels. They had expected to rub shoulders with the country’s traditional ruling elites, but that was not to be because Khan’s party was routed in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan in the 2013 election and could only win the Khaybar Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

Qadri’s party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), though older than Khan’s PTI, has never managed to win more than two seats in an election. Yet, Qadri succeeds to gather an impressive crowd with remarkable ease. This is mainly due to the following he enjoys among sections of the more moderate ‘Barelvi’ school of Sunni Islam. An articulate Islamic scholar, Qadri has been outspoken against extremism. More interestingly, as the last liberal PPP-ANP-MQM coalition government and as well as the current centre-right PMLN set-up failed miserably to contain a vicious sectarian and intra-sectarian war taking place on the streets of Pakistan, many Muslim sects, sub-sects and ‘minority’ outfits (which believe they have been under siege) too have begun to lean towards PAT.

Both Qadri and Khan claim that the traditional democratic system in Pakistan is stacked against those who are as popular among as the conventional parties, but are being kept out of the corridors of power. Both of them are basically talking about the blocked elite. This is an urban bourgeoisie that claims to not only have the right balance between liberalism and politics done in the name of religion, but also the best idea of how to guide and help the country’s vast peasant classes that still vote for conventional parties.

At the time of writing this report, Qadri and Khan were still holed up in Islamabad trying to keep the interest of a fluctuating audience (both at the site and, especially, on TV), through rousing speeches, music and numerous promises of ‘unveiling the truth.’ The military has held firm on its commitment to stay out of politics so far, whereas other major opposition parties have decided to stand by the PMLN regime.

But the incumbent regime hasn’t helped itself much. Though it enjoys an impressive majority in Pakistan’s parliament, it still seems nervous and sloppy, almost paralysed and unsure of exactly how to confront the challenge posed by two men who it thinks have been propped up by a ‘third force.’

There’s still no sign of the fat lady.