AFTER keeping the country on tenterhooks for almost a month, one of the most farcical melodramas of Pakistani politics ended a week ago in Islamabad — having been taken to the brink of a human tragedy.
It ended through an agreement between the ruling coalition and Dr Tahirul Qadri, with the former conceding to some demands for electoral reform. The latter had just a few days earlier celebrated the news of the possible arrest of the prime minister.
Pakistani politicians may be faulted for myriad sins, but their sense of pragmatism in saving the country from human tragedy deserves credit, even as their tardiness in the cognisance of a looming danger and their lack of a principled approach in dealing with it were responsible for the crisis in the first place.
It is doubtful, though, whether the deal will save the country from further chaos and continued misgovernance and put it on the path of political advancement, economic salvation and social harmony.
The sudden re-emergence on Pakistan’s political horizon of Dr Qadri, a religious scholar of renown, even if self-promoting and deficient in humility, who heads the charity Minhajul Quran, took Pakistani political groups by surprise and set off alarm bells — similar to the ones heard during Imran Khan’s electoral launch more than a year ago — for being a proxy of the establishment.
Dr Qadri’s putative nexus with the military was even more credible in view of his background and the patronage offered by Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf, whose coup he supported in 1999 and with whom he remained closely allied until 2004. Since then, he has reportedly been living in political asylum in Canada because of alleged threats to his life by extremist groups in Pakistan. One of his earlier demands for electoral reform had been to make the military and higher judiciary major stakeholders in the nomination of the interim government before the elections, raising concerns that this was an attempt to smuggle in the dreaded Bangladesh model to derail democracy.
No one has yet found any evidence about who, if anyone, was behind Dr Qadri, although if a conspiracy did exist it was unlikely to be transparent in any case.
More likely is the hypothesis that this was a solo flight in pursuit of his personal ambition to become Pakistan’s saviour. He did not let either Mr Khan or the chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Altaf Hussain, become a co-pilot. He welcomed them aboard only under his stewardship, which they shrewdly declined. As a result, his flight ran out of fuel and his SOS about an imminent crash-landing was responded to, allowing him safe landing in view of the valuable human cargo it was carrying.
Although there may be some collateral benefits to others, the main beneficiary of this rather bizarre piece of political brinkmanship is likely to be Dr Qadri himself. He has succeeded in inserting himself into the equation of high politics in Pakistan, almost at the eleventh hour. He has also succeeded in leveraging the media, the military and the middle class in favour of his agenda.
While many of his proposals regarding the forthcoming elections have received wide acclaim, the manner in which Dr Qadri has sought to achieve his goals is highly questionable. First, he spent an enormous amount of money before even coming to Pakistan in a massive publicity campaign.
Second, he used strong religious rhetoric and Islamic symbolism, comparing his march with the most sacred incident of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom in Karbala.
Finally — and most importantly — he used the common people, especially women, young children and the elderly, virtually as human shields to protect himself from a possible attempt by the government to evict the participants from an ordinarily busy thoroughfare. He exposed vulnerable groups to health and safety hazards as Islamabad’s night-time temperatures fell close to freezing point, aggravated by winter rains and cold winds.
In one rhetorical flourish during his five-day jamboree, Dr Qadri delivered his message to his audience: “99 per cent of the people have been kicked out of democracy. This democracy is only for the one per cent elite.”
However, the agreement that he signed with the ruling coalition did nothing to ensure that this situation will be reversed anytime soon. Even if it is adhered to strictly, the resulting changes will at best be cosmetic and may reduce the proportion of the elite in the legislatures by a fraction of a per cent. There is nothing to ensure that the poor and the presently disenfranchised will be fairly represented.
Even if some kind of affirmative action is envisaged in favour of the poor and deprived sections of the population — as has been done, for example, in the case of women and minorities — that will remain inoperative and unimplemented because of the configuration of power structures and economic and social disparities. Removing these will require much more radical structural reform.
In the current discourse, no one seems to be paying any attention to these basic problems and the need to mobilise political forces to bring them about. Dr Qadri’s long marches and tall promises are unlikely to achieve much except acting as a catalyst for raising political consciousness amongst the population at large.
The writer is a former professor of economics at Quaid-i-Azam University.