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No talks, only noise

Updated July 12, 2013

THEY kept wondering why the militants were not targeting the PML-N government in Punjab. If that was to happen, the targeted had to be the people, post-incident identified as innocent victims.

Then the blast at the Purani Anarkali Food Street happened last Saturday, which was inevitably followed by ‘we told you so’ cries. The message from those whose neighbourhoods have frequently been hit by the militants was: those determined to strike are prepared to spare no one.

When a not well-known Baloch group, titled Balochistan Liberation Tigers, eventually took responsibility, their claim aided the damage-control exercise that was already under way.

Either side of the Tigers’ statement, Lahore, in the hands of its various protectors, appeared to be making an effort to convince itself that it was not in that much danger from the Taliban and allied militants as some other parts of Pakistan.

Considerable attention was given to the weight of the terror packet placed at Food Street. The weight fluctuated between a few kilograms to just 500 grams in the comments of various officials and ministers.

The ‘small’ size could only mean two things: either the terrorists were soft on Punjab or the security here was much better than elsewhere. In any case, there was reason for people here to feel more secure than those living elsewhere in the country.

But, despite the watering down, the blast close to home did hurt. From its not-too-distant memory Lahore could readily recall the association of fear (as also a determination to fight back) with closeness to the scene of the violent act.

Thus, instantly after the Saturday evening explosion that killed five, a debate began about the blast’s possible impact on the approach of the PML-N towards a proposed all parties conference (APC) originally expected to be held today.

The delay in holding the APC is consistent with the dithering on terrorism. In the one month since the general elections, stalling and blame-shifting is all there has been with reference to militancy. There would be nothing like a solid joint statement of rebuke to the militants, but unanimous condemnation appears highly unlikely.

Eventually, a not very willing federal government has been placed at the head of a grand national effort that is yet to begin. This effort is personified by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who is likely to combine his poise and the seriousness of his expression in coming up with a standard force-cum-negotiation agenda at the conference.

A joint resolution, if and when it arrives, will likely be more of rhetoric than substance. Circumstances dictate caution.

The preferences were known long before the expected holding of the APC. Especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is in power, the provincial government has defensively found refuge behind its calls for a national policy, which is then endorsed by one of its main rivals in the province, Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

Reports of growing closeness between the maulana and the Nawaz government in Islamabad, necessitated by the PML-N’s need to widen its support base, could be a reconfirmation the PML-N is committed to a policy on militancy that is not radically different from the one long advocated by the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl.

The JUI-F version, or for that matter all other so-called remedies that are bandied about in public, are so profoundly covered in rhetoric that the contents are open to speculation and various interpretations.

Many KP-based leaders argue for respecting Pakhtun aspirations and interests while, eventually and quite inevitably, settling for a dialogue with the militants. The response is most starkly represented by Aftab Sherpao, a partner of the PTI in the provincial government. He has been calling for effectively activating the Pakhtun sources for overcoming the problem.

Sherpao is yet to divulge his formula, promising to come up with a plan if and when he is consulted, formally and officially.

The time for that has arrived and it will be extremely important to find out how his scheme is different from that of the Awami National Party and PPP, both of which had come to power in a coalition in KP in 2008 due to their promise of bringing the militancy-inclined sections in the province into the political discourse.

For the moment, all Sherpao seems to be suggesting is that honesty can succeed where the ‘corrupt’ ANP-PPP alliance did not. That is pretty much an expansion on what others in power right now are saying. That is where the PTI’s and PML-N’s emphasis is, on words and on limiting their response to flaunting their honest, sincere credentials.

Unless the conference dramatically turns out to be a ground-breaking venue where the participants extend their affair with honesty for an earnest and honest analysis of the situation, not too much hope can hinge on the grand event.

The truth remains that with an exception or two, the APC participants have all shown a readiness to ally themselves with the militants at one level or the other.

As recently as during the May general elections, many of these parties or their candidates were found soliciting support of militant organisations in various parts of the country. It is not about them rejecting the militants. It is about who the militants choose to apply to from among the parties queuing up at their door in favour of an alliance.

The PML-N is alleged to be carrying the badge of most favoured party at this moment.

Even when no great departures from the past are expected at the conference the Sharifs may come under pressure for answers to some tough questions at least some of the parties have been asking. These centre on the ‘Pakhtun’ complaints about Punjab’s inability to move against terror sanctuaries on its territory.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.