Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Still time for a salvage mission

October 26, 2007

THE anti-Musharraf movement in full bloom this summer has passed. The opposition parties fluffed it or our stars were not in the right conjunction. We have entered a new phase in our political life, calling for a shift in strategy and a new order of battle.

No army general in power has ever been removed by a popular upsurge in Pakistan. Ayub Khan, self-appointed field marshal for wars unknown, does not count. He was not army chief when he faced a popular uprising. Yahya was the army chief who conspired against him to engineer his ouster.

When the wheel turned for Yahya he went because of defeat in East Pakistan. Zia was blown out of the skies. But before that his power was diminished after the 1985 elections when Mohammad Khan Junejo became prime minister.

Gen Pervez Musharraf has arrived at the same twilight zone in his presidency. As long as he enjoys the army’s backing he will remain in power. But he faces a general election and there is pressure on him from Washington to cut a power-sharing deal with Benazir Bhutto, which makes her (paradoxical as it may sound) his possible Mohammad Khan Junejo.

Admittedly, there is much cynicism around and the political parties are falling back into their traditional mode of mutual vituperation and mudslinging. But if they are not to make a hash of things again, if they are not to play the mutually destructive game Musharraf and his coterie would like them to play, they have to be realistic and see what the possibilities for expanding democracy are in the current situation.

Benazir Bhutto must know that Washington may have brought her back to Pakistan but Washington cannot fix the coming elections for her. The powers-that-be — under which rubric fall Musharraf, Q League president Chaudhry Shujaat, Punjab chief minister Pervaiz Elahi, Sindh chief minister Arbab Rahim, and all those who are congenitally averse to a PPP comeback — will do all in their power to ensure that the PPP is cut down to size.

A PPP majority in the elections may be Washington’s heartfelt desire. It doesn’t suit Musharraf or his allies. Benazir can come close to winning the elections only if she has the support of other opposition parties, principally Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N.

Simply unbelievable, isn’t it? The N League supporting the PPP? But what options does Nawaz Sharif have? He can rave from the sidelines and see his party repeat its lacklustre performance in the 2002 elections or he can play a subtler game not by entering into an open alliance with Benazir Bhutto — because the establishment won’t allow it — but a seat-adjustment formula at the district level.

Not a national alliance with drums beating and flags flying because that would scare Musharraf’s inner circle out of its wits but loose seat-winning alliances across the country — the PML-N supporting the PPP where it is strong, the PPP backing the PML-N where it is the other way round. Baloch nationalists can be a part of this arrangement as can the ANP. This is the only way to beard the lion in his den, the only way to get a pro-democracy majority in the next National Assembly.

The obstacles along this path are formidable but they are mostly in the mind, a mix of mistrust and prejudice lingering from an era long since over. The Alliance for Democracy may have fallen apart and Benazir may have cut a deal with Musharraf but Pakistan’s political landscape today is not what it was in the 1990s when the PPP and PML-N were at each other’s throats. Today their enemies are different, putting them under the necessity of looking for new friends.

Who are the persons most upset by Benazir’s homecoming? The Chaudhries in Punjab and Arbab Rahim in Sindh who see their position as Musharraf’s leading political guns threatened. The MQM is not afraid of Benazir because it is sure of its popular base in Karachi and Hyderabad. The Chaudhries and Arbab are not similarly confident because their power is contrived, a gift from Musharraf and his camarilla.

Shujaat thinks he is the regime’s Cardinal Richelieu, the power behind the throne. Pervaiz Elahi, not satisfied with the satrapy of Punjab (which is more than half of Pakistan), has dreams of becoming prime minister. That is why he is running a private election campaign, and has been doing so for some time, so as to make his run for the prime ministership unstoppable. Son Moonis is standing for MNA from Lahore. Hoardings there proclaim him ‘Pride of Lahore’, doubtless proving that there is no end to our talent for grim humour.

Who are Nawaz Sharif’s deadliest political rivals? Not the PPP for times have changed but Shujaat and Pervaiz Elahi. Doesn’t this point to a convergence of interests between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto? Don’t both share a common interest in reducing the power of the two Chaudhries?

In Rawalpindi, for instance, the PPP and the PML-N share an interest in putting a zip on the biggest lip in Pakistani politics, Sheikh Rashid. They won’t succeed unless they field a common candidate against him.

Musharraf can’t be assaulted frontally. He presents too strong a line of defence for that. But whether in love or war a frontal assault is seldom the best policy. That is why down the ages the best captains of war have favoured the indirect approach: rolling an enemy’s flanks or taking him from the rear. So if Musharraf is not to be assaulted frontally, the next best thing is to whittle away at his satellites in the Q League.

Both parties should put up a single candidate against Moonis in Lahore and against the Chaudhries in Gujrat, and so on. As the elections approach, my reckoning is that voices from the grassroots calling for a seat-to-seat adjustment between these two major parties will grow louder.

The holy fathers (of the MMA) are sincere only to themselves. Only a fool will trust them. Any party taking them on board is likely to find it an unwelcome bargain in the end. They should be left to stew in their own juice. Indeed, no outcome should be more welcome than for Maulana Fazlur Rehman to be hoisted on the petard of his own cleverness.

But for Imran Khan and others of his ilk to train all their guns at Benazir Bhutto is to bark up the wrong tree. There will be a time and place for opposing the Daughter of the East. But that is not yet because today’s problems are different.

The last thing anyone should want is for Musharraf to cast himself in the mould of a Suharto or a Hosni Mubarak. That will be the end, giving rise to a level of frustration and despair we won’t know how to eliminate. No, we must look to safer alternatives.

Benazir is the camel who with American help has entered the Bedouin’s tent. It is in the national interest to see that the camel occupies more space, leaving progressively less space for the Bedouin. But for that to happen, our political parties will have to chuck the baggage of the past and leave their adolescence behind.

So why not cool down the overheated rhetoric regarding deals, betrayal of ideals and the dry-cleaning of corruption? Let us concentrate on essentials, on first things first. Let’s see Musharraf getting out of uniform and the Chaudhries confined to Gujrat where they belong. The long march to idealism and high principles can be resumed later.