“WHEN the nation is about to be declared a failed state,” asks embattled Pervez Musharraf, “tell me whether…so-called democracy is important or efforts to save the country?” After saving the country for the last eight years he obviously wants to do it all over again.

If memory serves, the primary excuse for his first coup in Oct 1999 was the same chestnut: that Pakistan was about to be declared a failed state. As self-indictments go this is quite a devastating one. But in his present saviour-mode Musharraf can’t be expected to have much time for such fine distinctions.

“Have you thought of (resigning)?” asks Sky News. The answer: “But should it be given up now and we will have better Pakistan, a stabler Pakistan and we could have very good elections, without me? Very good, maybe I take that decision, OK?” (No kidding, the very words.)

As the BBC Urdu Service’s Mohammad Hanif observes (in his hilarious “The case of Musharraf and the drunk uncle”), “Musharraf deserves our sympathy. Not because he has been forced to carry out a coup against his own regime, not because his troops are being kidnapped en masse by Pakistani Taliban and then awarded Rs500 for good behaviour, not because he himself has become a prisoner in his Army House and can’t even nip out for coffee and paan as he used to, but because he has utterly lost his grip over grammar.”

Musharraf may have done the nation a final service by lifting the last veil of illusion from Benazir Bhutto who now says, after a somewhat longish journey into the kingdom of make-believe, she will have no truck with him and their ways have parted. Better late than never. There is no shortage of Pakistanis fervently hoping she sticks to this position, considering her to be the key to opposition unity at this juncture.

The luckiest thing to have ever happened to Musharraf was not American aid post-Sep 11 but the dithering, weak-kneed opposition he has enjoyed, his dictatorship made easy first by Nawaz Sharif’s un-seasonal pilgrimage to the Holy Land in Dec 2000, then by the support of the religious parties at the time of the 17th Amendment (sanctifying his rule) in 2003 and, last of all, the purported deal with Benazir Bhutto under American sponsorship. Hopefully this is now over. Anyone could have told Musharraf it was not in his interest to burn his bridges with Bhutto. But when paranoia takes over, as it has nowadays in the corridors of power, subtlety is an early casualty. Credit must also be given to Bhutto for finally being able to read which way the wind is blowing. Siding with Musharraf now would be worse than political suicide.

Even our American godfathers are getting frustrated with him because he is getting nothing right. Indeed, after Mar 9 almost everything he has done has turned into a blunder, the action of Nov 3 of course qualifying for a higher title: catastrophe.

Against the Taliban Musharraf has won no victories. In fact under his watch it is the Taliban who have conquered territory and inflicted heavy losses on the army. His victories have been against the last outposts of liberal thought in Pakistan: the superior judiciary, the legal community, the media, political activists and students (from upscale schools and colleges). But he professes to uphold the banner of progress and enlightenment. There is a mangling of language we are witnessing in Pakistan today with words being used in a manner Goebbels would have approved of.

But wailing alone availeth nothing. Dictators don’t give up power easily. They go not when their time is up, they being notoriously insensible to the march of time, but when the issue is forced. When anger boils over and becomes an unstoppable political movement.

Musharraf will do all he can to remain in power. Of this we can be sure. What will the forces claiming to speak on the people’s behalf do? That is the important question.

Can the political parties finally discover the unity that has eluded them these last eight years? Can they forget their differences and coalesce around a one-point agenda of having nothing to do with the farce of the coming elections (under martial law)? If they can, hope is not lost. If they cannot, they deserve every last bit of what they are getting at the regime’s hands.

The opposition parties will gain nothing by participating in the coming elections (that is, if the regime holds out until then). But they stand to lose a great deal in terms of lost credibility. Musharraf is not holding elections so that the opposition parties win or Bhutto becomes prime minister. He is holding them so that his supporters win. But without the participation of the opposition parties these elections would not look credible.

This brings me to Imran Khan’s manhandling at the Punjab University, Lahore, by activists of the Islami Jamiat-i-Tulaba, the student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami. Not only was he prevented from holding a demonstration and courting arrest, as he had intended, but he was seized and confined in one of the departments before being handed over to the police. Words fail me to describe this shameful incident.

But Imran has not been diminished by it. He continues to stand tall. He is a brave man who has showed great courage during the post-martial law period. It is the Jamiat and its parent body, the Jamaat, which look small. Manhandling one of the few national heroes we have and then handing him over to the police: can anything be more despicable?

But even in evil there can be some good. If May 12 exposed the true face of the MQM, Nov 14 has revealed the ugly face of the Jamiat and the Jamaat. Qazi Hussein Ahmed’s populist posturing had led many simpleminded souls to believe that the Jamaat had changed its spots. The incident with Imran dispels such illusions.

The Jamaat remains wedded to an ideology suspiciously close to fascism, (which makes one wonder about the uses to which Islam has been put in this country). From Gen Yahya onwards it has worked as a handmaiden of our spook agencies, the dark forces who have always undermined democracy. As a matter of policy its student wing has practiced unabashed violence to promote its political ends. Indeed, when the definitive history of the collapse of Pakistani education is written, the Jamiat’s ‘danda-bardar’ (baton-wielding) tactics will figure prominently in it.

Therefore any chastising of the Jamaat and its works is welcome. No one has educated the Jamaat and Jamiat more than the MQM. Indeed, about the only good thing the MQM has ever done, since its baptism at Zia’s hands in the mid-1980s, is to give the Jamaat a taste of its own medicine in Karachi. For this one service, if no other, the MQM is to be applauded.

This incident underscores an important lesson: that the religious parties, at least the two biggest — Qazi Hussein’s Jamaat and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI -- can never be reliable partners in the struggle for democracy. They will always have an angle of their own and they will always be wired to the establishment.

PPP, PML-N, ANP, Tehrik-i-Insaf and the Baloch nationalists constitute the core of the dream alliance--the other elements of it being lawyers and civil society-- which can still take Pakistan’s ship, now tossed about on stormy seas, to safer shores. The holy fathers have proved themselves to be beyond the pale. Let them stew in their own juice.

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