Monday, May 13, 2013

No country for confusion

No country for confusion
M.J. Akbar

The results of the Pakistan elections should be far less important
than the fact that elections are taking place. There will always be
theorists who find comparisons between the past and present
irresistible. It is possible, for instance, to see faint ghosts of
1970 and 1971, albeit in a reverse mirror image: a new West and East
Pakistan emerging, with Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa
gravitating towards dissension and bulwark Punjab holding up central
space. In this scenario the Pakistan of 1947, halved in 1971, is being
reduced to a mere Punjab in the teens of the 21st century.
Elections can trigger, or accentuate, seismic faults if sectarian
passions find a correlation with geography. The decisive phase of the
Bangladesh liberation movement began with a general election that
confirmed that East and West Pakistan were politically split. Zulfiqar
Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, argued forcefully
after the verdict that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League had no
moral right to rule the West because its mandate had come solely from
the East. Awami League had an arithmetical majority in the national
legislature, not a political one.
Bhutto was right. By the same token, his PPP had no claim over what is
now Bangladesh since his party was not even in the contest in the
East. Of course Bhutto could never extend, publicly, the logic of his
But two contemporary realities make disintegration virtually
impossible. Pakistan has a strong nationalist institution in the armed
forces. Even in 1971, Bangladesh could not have been born without the
defeat and humiliation of the Pak armed forces in a war against India.
East and West would have had to find a different solution, but that is
another story.
Second, Tehrik-e-Taliban and its allies do not represent a threat to
the geography of Pakistan. They are challenging what they believe is a
wishy-washy compromise that currently passes as the ideology of the
state. They want a hardline Islamic Pakistan, not a divided Pakistan.
They believe a Sharia-driven Sunni Islam can check sub-nationalism.
They do not want to drive the Baloch or the Pathan away; if anything,
their dreams are expansionist, seeking ideological territory in
Afghanistan and then an alliance with compatible Sunni movements and
militias further west. If they have an enemy within the folds of
believers, it is the Shia, who they condemn as heretics.
The Taliban has begun military operations against two sectarian
parties: the MQM, the front of North Indian refugees, and ANP [Awami
National Party] of the Frontier. The third enemy is PPP, which is
likely to become a Sindh party after this poll. The Taliban is not
talking about merely defeating them in elections. It is seeking to
eliminate them physically. Over a hundred died, and more than 300 were
wounded, during April alone, when campaign season began. At its end,
former PPP Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani’s son, Ali Haider Gilani, was
kidnapped in Multan. As Ahmad Rashid, the renowned author and
journalist, put it, the “polarisation, murder and mayhem” are
In a land where peace is news, a large island of calm will inevitably
invite questions. Strangely, or perhaps logically, there is little
violence in Punjab. Most observers attribute this to an implicit
understanding between the principal adversaries for power in Punjab,
Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and Imran Khan’s
Tehreek-e-Insaf. Even if this were true, this is only a very small
part of the story.
The Taliban and its friends are wiser than we imagine. This is so
obviously a tactical decision, not a strategic one. Taliban and
Company believe they can seize the surround, providing them with a
larger operating base for the final phase in their war for the control
of Pakistan, which will take place in Punjab. Neither Imran nor Nawaz
is a Taliban ally. For this election, the democrats [Nawaz and Imran],
and Taliban are using each other as a cat’s paw. Their turn will come
after the elections.
The extremists have also sharpened their appeal by exploiting a
fundamental weakness of Pakistan’s democratic parties, their
collective capitulation to feudalism. Pakistan has never had genuine
land reform. Bhutto, who flirted with socialism, tried, failed and
abandoned the thought. Islam plus land is a powerful slogan for the
peasant. The New York Times quotes Maulana Abdul Khaliq Rehmani, a
candidate of the Ahle-Sunnat wal-Jamaat, a legal offshoot of
Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, telling a rural rally: “Feudalism has
paralyzed Pakistan.” He also adds, for good measure, that “Islamabad
is a colony of America.” The Jamaat has put up 130 candidates, and
less than ten might win; but they are sowing seeds for conflicts
within the near future.
The most ominous result for Pakistan would be a confused legislature.
It would encourage the worst instincts of the army and inspire hopes
among extremists that their gun-stoked theocracy is the only option
that can bring order to the country. This is what makes results more
important than the polls. Whoever wins, should win big.

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