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Decade full of choices
Publication Date : 04-10-2013
Kahin to jaa kay rukay ga safeena-i-gham-i-dil. The journey of sorrows has to end. But when?
The failures of the PML-N and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), in government since the May elections, have generated much criticism. Some of the latter is mocking of the two parties over the grand claims they made before the PML-N came to power at the centre and the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
It is not as if the PML-N or PTI are undeserving of the fire they have been subjected to but Pakistan’s loss is greater than the failure of a couple of parties.
With these two ‘right-wing’ parties in power, the country completes a round where it has tried all options without any success.
A decade ago the debate was about the merits of having a military dictator with a ‘progressive’ intent. The house was divided over what Pakistan wanted most urgently: democracy or strong rule by a liberal general committed to fighting the extremists?
Many among the sworn democrats were swayed by their understanding of the situation as it existed then and felt compelled to side with Gen Pervez Musharraf.
Those were the times when the knowledgeable would abhor the principled dreamers over the dangers of following a single-vision path resistant to the necessary modifications.
The dreamers were told they could put their democratic agendas on hold until the country had appropriately dealt with the menace of militancy under the best available leadership of Gen Musharraf.
The general had his allies. Among them the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) came to be hailed by some as a bulwark against the marauding militants.
Its middle class appeal was always a central plank in its progress in Karachi and urban Hyderabad but now even the MQM’s reputation as a party which could pay back the armed groups in kind was highlighted at a national level as a plus. It was a ‘secular’ party with the muscle to match the growing militant circle.
Gen Musharraf’s contact with Benazir Bhutto later on was indicative of the fact that his original policy, which nonetheless included a clause about appeasing militants every now and then, was not succeeding.
The SOS to Bhutto was necessitated essentially by the need to widen the scope of political engagement in the country.
The militants were not to be excluded from this expansion of the dialogue. If anything, those who had so eagerly worked out a deal between Bhutto and Gen Musharraf were confident that in Bhutto they would have a prime minister who wouldn’t surrender, or at least not surrender totally to the militants.
The advent of the PPP government without Bhutto must have upset the calculations, but with Asif Ali Zardari in command and working by the reconciliation mantra, the frail PPP coalition offered possibilities that could be pursued.
In partnership with the Awami National Party (ANP), the PPP did not close the option of dialogue with the militants in KP. Such foreclosure would have been against the spirit of the policy of expansion and democratisation of the politics that had brought Bhutto back into politics.
With time, however, it became clearer and clearer that the coalition that bound the PPP with the ANP, MQM and the PML-Q could not help using force in an attempt to curb militancy.
It is debatable whether the militants would have agreed to talking meaningfully with these ‘seculars’ even if they did not have military operations and drones to build their case on.
Using the political ‘seculars’ to rein in the militants was the second, at the time much-fancied, option that Pakistan had vainly tried after realising that a so-called liberal general couldn’t save it from the asphyxiating grip of terror.
An impression that force was succeeding could not be created. The people became increasingly restless as, despite the cries of victory by the likes of Rehman Malik, the militants continued to strike with impunity.
They expanded their areas of operation, and carried the fight to cities where the seculars were supposed to be better organised and better equipped to measure up to an armed conflict thrust upon them.
Amid its complaints that its coalition partners were benefiting the militants for some narrow vested interests and that the party was denied a proper forum a local government in Karachi for example to play an effective role, the MQM was perceived to have been unable to protect the people against the advancing ‘jihadi’.
The support it lost in Karachi, as evidenced in the voting patterns of the May elections, was a microcosm of the country, elaborating people’s doubts about the ability of ‘seculars’ all over Pakistan to somehow bring an end to militancy, the biggest challenge the country was faced with.
Long before the May election, the factors favoured those who were advocating a dialogue with the militants, those who were supposed to be ‘ideologically not at loggerheads with the jihadis’.
The failure of the military option and of the talks-cum-force method tried by the ‘seculars’ had contributed to a situation where the people were once again ready to side with the ‘right-wingers’ committed to having a dialogue with the militants.
This was a fact. This was the strength of both the PML-N and PTI in the May polls, as also of some other parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl. More than the stories of their corruption, it was a perceived lack of progress on the ‘war on terror’ front that cost the ‘seculars’ support not just of Pakistani voters but also some international backers.
Like it or not, the PML-N and PTI came to power with the promise and mandate of trying to solve the issue by talking to the militants. Why should anyone, especially a democrat, draw pleasure from the quick re-emergence of doubts?
The popular confidence is eroding. From Gen Musharraf to Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, the ‘last option’ in the current Pakistani book of choices. This is an occasion for solemn reflection.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.