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Happy to be wrong

December 27, 2014


OVER a week after the Peshawar massacre, deliberations among major parties have produced something to frighten the jihadis and reassure us.

Am I surprised? A little. I had suggested last week that our political leadership lacked the spine to take the hard decisions necessary to eradicate the terrorist threat. I will be happy to be proved wrong. However, looking at our history, we see that almost without exception, leaders have opted for the easier path when confronting tough choices.

So while the military continues to hit the militants in the tribal areas, politicians are now in agreement over the establishment of military courts to try suspected terrorists. This says much for the bankruptcy of our legal system, and the confidence we have in our judiciary. But while applauding this new-found consensus, let us not forget that the jihadi mindset is now woven into the fabric of society and state institutions, so rooting it out will take a long, hard struggle at many levels.

Without an enduring political consensus, little will change.

Although Nawaz Sharif is now vowing to eradicate terrorism from Pakistan, he is the same man who once tried to ram through the Fifteenth Amendment that would have made him amirul momineen, or leader of the faithful. And he did his best to delay action against the Taliban by insisting on pointless talks that, predictably, led nowhere.

Rana Sanaullah, earlier law minister in the ruling party’s Punjab cabinet, publicly hobnobs with known extremists. But again, I would be as happy to be surprised by a transformed prime minister as I would by Imran Khan abandoning his pro-Taliban views.

My cynicism is based on our track record of avoiding hard decisions: it took politicians nearly a decade to agree on a constitution after independence; in the interim, generals and bureaucrats entrenched themselves in power. The deadlock was caused by West Pakistani politicians refusing to concede the universal principle of ‘one-man, one-vote’ as this would have transferred power to the more populous eastern wing.

Then take the issue of land reforms: while India swiftly broke up and redistributed large holdings, we dithered and delayed. Feudals constitute a large and powerful section of the political class, and fought tooth and nail to hang on to their estates that had been conferred on them for loyalty to the British. Even when Bhutto announced a sweeping redistribution policy in the 1970s, many feudal families fudged deeds to keep the bulk of their land, handing over their least productive units.

In Zia’s time, even these flawed land reforms were undone on religious grounds. As usual, clerics sided with the rich against the dispossessed. By deeming these reforms ‘un-Islamic’, a Sharia bench of the Supreme Court has closed the doors to land reforms.

Or look at the shambles of our tax collection regime: in nearly seven decades, we have been unable to make our rich farmers pay taxes. Businessmen routinely evade taxes with the active connivance of officials. After years of talking about it, value added tax remains as difficult to collect as extracting a healthy canine tooth. As a result, our tax-to-GDP ratio remains one of the lowest in the world.

And graft continues to grow at every level despite vocal protests and endless rhetoric about accountability. While Asif Zardari might have acquired an unenviable reputation, his predecessors and successors have hardly been blameless. No government in recent years has been able to tackle this cancer effectively despite tall promises to clean up the system.

Successive governments have allowed the so-called ‘circular debt’ to pile up, crippling electricity generating companies through non-payment of their dues. And it’s not just businessmen and individuals who don’t pay up: government depart­ments are among the worst offenders.

Gen Musharraf, des­pite the concentration of power in his hands, was unable to push the Kalabagh dam through. Nor could he tackle extremism or regulate the madressahs despite his personal moderation, as well as his admiration of the secular Turkish model created by Kemal Ataturk.

So given this list of failures over the years, will our political class take on sections of the religious clergy and the media to get rid of the jihadist ideology that has taken root in Pakistan? The reality is that unless we can forge an enduring political consensus, nothing will really change. The militants being killed by the military now will be replaced by other young jihadis. Apart from temporarily disrupting the terrorist infrastructure, we will not be able to eradicate extremist ideology from our society.

The flow of funds, the distribution of jihadi literature and the hate speeches from mosques and TV studios will all have to be halted. Unsurprisingly, none of these objectives are currently on the government’s agenda.

But perhaps the most hopeful sign of changing attitudes is the civil society campaign led by activist Jibran Nasir. Once ordinary people rise to challenge the forces of darkness represented by Maulana Abdul Aziz of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, perhaps things really will change.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2014