Paradigm shift

Print edition : March 28, 2008

Although the Pakistan situation remains delicately poised, a shift has occurred in the balance of forces towards democratisation and against religious extremists.

AFTER setting March 6 as the target for choosing its prime ministerial nominee, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has failed to agree upon a candidate.

This is a setback for the party, which won a plurality, but not a majority, of seats in the National Assembly in the landmark elections of February 18, and hopes to form a coalition at the Centre with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif), or PML(N), with its main base in Punjab, and Asfandyar Wali Khans Awami National Party, largely based in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Apparently, the PPP could not resolve its differences over whether the Prime Minister-designate should be from Sindh, where it is strongest, or from Punjab, Pakistans largest province. Also at work were calculations about keeping various options open on a future alternative President, on accommodating PPP Vice-Chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim in the right position, and on building a cooperative arrangement with the PML(N). The PPP has proved indecisive and slow in building alliances. And it may not have all the time in the world.

Many leaders of the PML(N), including Nawaz Sharif, would like to support a PPP-led government from the outside, much in the way that the Left parties in India back the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) without joining its government. But the PPP would like the PML(N) to join the next ruling coalition led by itself.

It is another matter that the Indian formula may not be appropriate for Pakistan. In the Indian case, the UPA and the Left were united by a strong desire to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power; the Left is not quite seeking to replace the UPA after the next election.

In Pakistan, the PPP and the PML(N) are not united by, but differ on, their approach to President Pervez Musharraf.

The PML(N) wants him to quit or to be impeached. It insists that the legitimately appointed judges whom he sacked, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, be restored. But the PPP is less categorical in opposing him, and many of its leaders have said that they would cooperate with him. The PML(N) would like another general elections, an early one, in which it hopes to replace the PPP.

These divergences, the so-far messy process of negotiating viable alliances at the national and provincial levels, and the attempt by the Pakistani Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam), or PML(Q), the Kings party sponsored by Musharraf to create an alternative coalition all confirm to the view that Pakistans transition to democracy would be complicated and bumpy, with many ups and downs, and with the possibility of reversals and setbacks.

To add to the domestic difficulties some of them rooted in the prolonged battering that the political system has suffered under military rule, and in the relatively uncrystallised and unstructured nature of many political parties is the overwhelming presence of the United States in Pakistan and its heavy-handed interference in political processes, to the point of trying to micromanage them, as revealed in a recent video clip of the U.S. Ambassadors meeting with Pakistani political leaders, which was shown on some Indian television channels.

The U.S. has still not given up on trying to rescue Musharraf and perpetuate his position as the head of state, by hook or by crook. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, Washington still regards him as its best, if not the sole reliable, ally in its global war on terror, especially on Pakistans western borders.

A great deal can still go wrong in Pakistan. But it would be churlish to underrate the seminal significance of what has gone right. First, unlike many past elections, the February 18 elections was fought in the teeth of opposition from the establishment. The establishment was routed, it witnessed the stunning defeat of stalwarts, especially those of the PML(Q), who belong to well-entrenched feudal political families. They are among Pakistans shrewdest and most venal politicians, many of them never having lost an election. Their rout conveys an egalitarian, inclusive and radically democratic message and gives the vote an anti-elite character.

Second, the vote was a referendum against Musharraf and the military rule and for a decisive transition to democracy. It has far-reaching implications for balances within state structures. The message for Musharraf is stark. He asked the people to vote for his nominees. They resoundingly rejected them. If Musharraf has any sense, he would quit and roll back his recent decisions, including the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) of November 3, 2007.

The people punished the hardliners who invoke Allah, and downsized the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal from 56 seats in the National Assembly to just 5 seats. They inflicted a humiliating defeat on it in the NWFP, where it ruled. In 2002, the fundamentalists had breached the traditional 3 per cent vote barrier for the first time. They are now back to the margins.

The Army now faces the peoples ire, its intensity comparable only to 1971, when it lost the Bangladesh war. Slogans at every public meeting, and super-popular ring tones such as Go, Musharraf, Go!, ridicule it for its misrule, corruption, and for fighting the U.S-dictated war on terror.

General Ashfaq Kiyani saw the writing on the wall and decided to sever the Armys contacts with politicians, withdraw its personnel from civilian positions, and ensure that it would not help Musharraf rig the polls.

Like the opinion polls, the election campaign too proved that the U.S overbearing presence is greatly resented. It failed to influence events beyond a point, despite trying hard.

Third, and even more important, the civil society emerged as a leading player. This and the lawyers impressive and sustained movement in defence of constitutional institutions speak for the development of a democratic ethos. This reminds many progressive Pakistanis of the 1968-69 student movement and civil society mobilisation, but exceeds its reach, scale and impact.

These trends, and the Armys withdrawal, augur well for the demilitarisation of Pakistans state and society. If consolidated, they would lead to a historic democratic breakthrough.

Musharrafs options have greatly narrowed after PPP Co-Chairperson Asif Ali Zardari and Sharif agreed to cooperate politically. Musharraf and the U.S. did their utmost to prevent this. Washington put enormous pressure on Zardari not to demand the restoration of judges, who had begun to inquire into the disappearances of hundreds of people as a result of the war on terror.

Musharraf sent national security secretary, Tariq Aziz, to tell Zardari that there would be a huge price to pay for cooperating with Sharif, including the reopening of corruption cases annulled as part of the U.S-brokered Benazir-Musharraf deal. To back up the threat, the government opened up anti-Zardari cases in Geneva. It is a tribute to the power and legitimacy of the voters mandate that Zardari did not buckle under, and that the government withdrew its threat.

The priority now is to rescind the PCO, restore the dismissed judges, and cancel Musharrafs decrees. Nothing should be done to bestow legitimacy on the Army. It must be encouraged to withdraw to the barracks. The demilitarisation of state structures must begin, leading to the dismantling of the Inter Services Intelligence. Pakistans institutions are weak and its leaders even less accountable and less mature than Indian politicians.

There is, besides, a potential saboteur the U.S., with its obsessive war-on-terror agenda. Yet, if the Army and the Islamists are contained for some time, Islamic Pakistan could make that great transition: to a moderate, modernist democracy.

Pakistan is not only the worlds second-largest Muslim country, it is also the most technologically advanced and one of the most influential ones. Its democratisation will set a worthy global example and puncture the jaundiced view, prevalent in much of the West and among the Indian elite too, that Islam is inherently intolerant and not quite compatible with democracy.

This will also contribute to delegitimising the Islamophobic prism through which terrorism is seen by much of our establishment. Above all, Pakistans successful democratisation will take the wind out of the sails of the Hindu-communal argument.

The importance of this for South Asia, and for reforming the Wests view of Islam, simply cannot be exaggerated. Right since the Second World War, and especially after toppling Irans first-elected government under Mossadegh in 1953, the West led by the U.S. has done much to subvert democracy in the Islamic world.

Regrettably, it succeeded in West Asia. If it were to fail in Pakistan, and the people were to triumph, the course of history could change.

India must recognise this, give up its strong backing for Musharraf, and offer unstinting cooperation to the new government. It should try to persuade the Americans to do so too. Zardari and Sharif both support the India-Pakistan peace process, giving it a wider constituency. Nothing could be more welcome.

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