A cleric’s agenda

Published : Jan 23, 2013 13:06 IST

Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri  addresses his supporters from behind the window of an armoured vehicle in Islamabad on January 17.

Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri addresses his supporters from behind the window of an armoured vehicle in Islamabad on January 17.

DEMOCRACY in Pakistan might just have turned a corner in mid-January. Given how little breathing space the democratic project has ever had in this country, democracy is still not out of the woods although those representing it are getting more sure-footed and battle-ready for the long haul instead of cutting corners to their own peril as they did in the 1990s.

This might seem like going around in circles, but that is the stuff Pakistani politics is made of. To the extent that politicians are almost fearful of their own shadows, courtesy the widely held perception that the hidden hand is always lurking nearby to upset the applecart. Pakistani politicians can be faulted on various grounds, particularly on issues of governance or the lack of it, but their fears of being upstaged have been and remain a clear and present danger.

Qadri’s return Which is why when the Pakistani-Canadian cleric-politician Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri waltzed back into the country in December demanding a change in the system, it smacked of more than just a wannabe politician returning to try his luck in the elections that are due before mid-May. Everything about his mobilisation for this project seemed suspect.

First and foremost was the timing. Why now, when Pakistan was poised for the first democratic transition through elections under civilian rule in 65 years? Then, there was the question about the huge advertisement campaign across a host of television channels and newspapers besides the banners put up in major cities for a month and a half, right from the beginning of December until the start of his “long march” on January 14 from when the spotlight remained trained on him with 24x7 television coverage.

The preacher, who is never at a loss for words, never really got around to giving a convincing reply to these questions. And his past allegiances added fuel to the fire; he was part of two military dictatorships: the radicalising establishment of General Zia-ul-Haq and the “enlightened moderation” regime of General Pervez Musharraf. In a country all too familiar with the machinations of the powerful security establishment, these were strong warning signals.

As if these were not enough, his clarion call of “ Nizam badlo ” (change the system) with slogans such as “ Siyasat nahin, riyasat bachao ” (save the state, not politics) smacked of yet another attempt to overturn democracy. All this before he even unveiled his plan of action at the Minar-e-Pakistan on December 23. After the rally, his agenda became clear and even the most bitter critics of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government saw an effort to derail the democratic process when he demanded, in the name of ushering in “true democracy” to the country, sweeping electoral reforms before the elections.

While no one had a quarrel with his general diatribe against “money, might and manipulation” in politics, his invocation of Article 254 of the Constitution to justify a postponement of the elections and his call for involving all stakeholders, including the judiciary and the military, in choosing the caretaker Prime Minister to oversee the elections were seen as another attempt by the establishment to step in covertly.

After all, saving the state from politicians—“bloody politicians” is apparently how those in battle fatigues like to call them derisively—has been the main justification cited after every military intervention, overt and covert. And his “first reforms then elections” slogan sounded dangerously close to Zia-ul-Haq’s “ pehle ehtesaab, phir intikhab ” (first accountability, then elections).

Army distances itself Even though the Inter Services Public Relations, the media wing of the military, said that the Army had nothing to do with Qadri, no one was really convinced because in the past five years of this government there have been several instances of the security establishment pulling strings from behind. Besides, while Qadri shifted his goalposts over and over again on various counts, he remained steadfast on two demands: reforms before the elections and getting the judiciary and the military at the high table to decide the contours of the interim government.

With evergreen members of successive governments, military and civilian, such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), veering towards the Qadri bandwagon, conspiracy theorists were back in business big time. And, he truly set the cat among the pigeons when he “long-marched” into the capital at the head of a motorcade on January 14 and put Parliament and Provincial Assemblies on notice, demanding their immediate dissolution. Or else….

The subsequent 72 hours saw many more such ultimatums, as the preacher would emerge periodically at his see-through bulletproof window of the container that was his makeshift quarters at the dharna site in Islamabad to address his flock.

Soon after sounding the first ultimatum, the man who criticised the strong-arm ways of politicians, arm-twisted the government into shifting the site of his protest in the dead of night. Despite an agreement with the administration in Islamabad to hold the dharna at a safe distance from Constitution Avenue, he insisted on moving the show lock, stock and barrel to D-Chowk, the federal capital’s version of Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. The administration blinked, and by morning the thousands who had joined his “long march” set up camp opposite Parliament House in the middle of the business district.

One promise that Qadri did not go back on was his assurance that the protest would remain peaceful. Despite frequent warnings of dire consequences if the demands of the “people’s parliament” converged in the capital after the “longest march history has ever seen” were not met, the four-day dharna remained peaceful with no signs of vandalism. Although businesses in the Blue Area had boarded up their offices and storefronts to prevent any damage to their premises, there was no attempt to break in and even the landscaping around the area remained by and large intact.

This made it more than evident that the people who had followed him to Islamabad were essentially those associated with his Minhaj-ul-Quran International, a “non-political, non-sectarian, non-governmental organisation” with a huge network spread across Pakistan and 90 countries. Still, the crowd that he pulled was way short of the “four million march to Islamabad” that he had threatened. (Qadri, in fact, accused all television anchors and analysts of suffering from cataract for putting the dharna’s strength at around 50,000.)

Political fightback Nevertheless, he did manage to keep his flock together for five days and nights, but more importantly, he tested the Pakistani politicians’ commitment to the Constitution and the democratic process. Several times bitten and, therefore, wiser to the machinations of the powers that be, they came out with flying colours: by closing ranks and launching a counter-offensive to isolate him.

If anything, Qadri’s enthusiasm in claiming that the Supreme Court order of January 15 to arrest Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf in a pending case was an outcome of his dharna hastened the process. Although there was no direct link between the two, the court’s timing was grist to the rumour mill.

There was Qadri holding forth on a sunny afternoon for an hour and a half, resorting to histrionics to keep his flock from leaving, and in the middle of his speech comes news of the order to arrest Raja Parvez Ashraf in the Rental Power Plants case—a scam that gave the Prime Minister the nickname “Raja Rental”.

The cleric who claims to have been projecting the soft face of Islam to the Western world in his years away from Pakistan rose in exultation and congratulated the crowd, saying: “Half speech delivered and half goal achieved. Tomorrow, I will deliver the second half and you will achieve the remaining goals.”

The higher judiciary’s own track record made it easy for the conspiracy theories to flourish. Every military intervention was validated by the judiciary and the present pantheon includes judges who had validated Musharraf’s coup, a point that was immediately bandied about. Although many analysts do not foresee a repeat performance, the apprehension is that the Supreme Court, by ordering the arrest at this juncture, created a situation Pakistan’s democracy cannot afford.

The noted lawyer Asma Jehangir smelt a rat and said the “boots are behind this”. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) immediately issued a statement titled “Perils to democracy have soared after S.C. order” which cautioned against “judicial hustling” to regulate politics. “The judiciary has to weigh the consequences of its decisions on the state whose interest it is supposed to safeguard…. Many might consider that the court has done much more than pour oil on raging flames. All these things put together make the task of the people of Pakistan to preserve the democratic character of the state infinitely more difficult,” the HRCP added.

Seeing a clear subtext that spelt doom for democracy in Qadri’s outpourings against politicians and eulogies to the judiciary and the military, the politicians spoke out in one voice against his demands to derail the constitutional process. Even cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which was under immense pressure to join the Qadri caravan, opted out, leaving the cleric standing alone.

A repeat of the divide-and-rule politics of the 1990s, when the establishment played the two main parties—the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League of the Sharif brethren (Nawaz and Shahbaz)—against each other to topple successive governments, was prevented as the ruling coalition felt comfortable enough to accept Qadri’s ultimatum to negotiate “or else…”. They further indulged him by sending the leaders to visit him at the dharna site, which he had threatened to turn into “Tahrir Square” (but was cult-like officially named “Qadri Square” by his managers).

The denouement In true Qadrisque style, what emerged was christened the “Islamabad Long March Declaration” which, according to most analysts, was a lot of words and clauses from the Constitution strung together as a face-saver for the cleric to pack up and leave. None of his key demands were met. Parliament and Provincial Assemblies are still in place, as is the Election Commission. Elections were anyway to be held before end-May and the government has time and again said it would step down when its time is over in mid-March.

Yes, Qadri did manage to get the government to agree to suggesting two names for the Interim Premier in “complete consensus” with his party, but the fact remains that the 20th Amendment of the Constitution provides a mechanism wherein the opposition has an equal say. This agreement is only binding on the government.

But to his flock, Qadri once again sold the lemon that they had won. Even before the document had been inked, the crowds, sensing a possibility of returning home, had begun celebrating when the 10-member government delegation, including Cabinet Ministers, trooped into the Qadrimobile. They may have been taken down the garden path by their spiritual leader, and everyone knows the vague assurances of cleaning the Augean stables that is Pakistan’s governance structure will come to naught, but that does not take away the widespread disenchantment with the democratic process.

The need to keep the system running, etc., is great drawing-room talk, but people want the system to deliver. In the absence of that, democracies anywhere will always face a threat from within.

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