Just as we thought that Pakistan was reaching a major watershed in its political history, the old specter of religion misused for politics has arisen to haunt us. At the time of writing these lines, tens of thousands of spiritual disciples of a moderate mullah have assembled outside Parliament House in Islamabad, claiming to represent 180 million Pakistanis.
The central character Dr Tahirul Qadri, neither elusive nor transparent, is a man with a mission. His agenda — couched in reformist language and anti-corruption jargon — is vague and rhetorical, except that it brazenly disregards a consensus that the Constitution of Pakistan drafted, restored and amended with historic struggles. Pakistan’s history is nothing but the quest for domination by unelected, post-colonial institutions trying to prevent democracy from taking root.
The underlying argument for autocracy and top-down governance has been the supposed “incompetence”, “corruption”, and “ineligibility” of civilians to govern the country. Similarly, from Iskandar Mirza to General Musharraf, all military strongmen have made similar claims about the inability of the political class to manage national institutions. Pakistani children read textbooks that glorify autocrats and ‘saviors’ of all kinds, and their acceptance for authoritarianism is pretty high by the time they enter adulthood.
This is why Tahirul Qadri’s faux revolution is both suspicious and dangerous for the future of Pakistan’s democratic trajectory. We know that the military has denied any role in spurring this ‘revolution’ and, frankly, there is little evidence to counter its claim. However, the advocacy of unconstitutional solutions to Pakistan’s political problems smacks of the GHQ script used in 1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999. The same obsessions — corruption, misgovernance, incompetence and ‘loot maar’ — appear to be the underlying reason for this revolution.
The other dimension of this ‘revolution’ concerns the assumed shift within Pakistan’s security doctrine. There have been reports of a big strategic rethink underway, which attempts to replace jihadist Islam with a moderate face in line with the global pressure on Pakistan to do something about its Deobandi-Salafi strategic assets. One reality is getting clearer: the impending transfer of power, managed and overseen by civilians through parliamentary processes, is not seen as a great idea as it might squeeze the already-shrinking space for military domination in Pakistan’s public life.
The forthcoming elections, now facing a question mark, are likely to return a prodigal-son-gone-rebel Nawaz Sharif or the wily chess player Zardari back into power. Such a prospect is troublesome for many within the enclaves of Pakistani state power. Therefore, the failed ‘Bangladesh model’ of neutral technocratic caretakers looms on the limited imagination of the power-wielders.
Regardless of what happens next, this is the gravest challenge to Pakistan’s democratic process since 2007 when Benazir Bhutto was murdered in Rawalpindi and the country was gripped by anarchy and uncertainty… Pakistan’s out-of-control electronic media needs to remember that by celebrating extra-constitutional deviations, it may just be inflicting self-harm by curbing its own future freedoms.
*Director of the Jinnah Institute, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
This extract is taken from a longer analysis published in The Express Tribune, January 17th, 2013.