THREE critical vulnerabilities have been exposed in the last few years when dharna politics has taken centre stage in the country. Each one is a threat to system stability in crucial ways, and taken together, they are cause for grave alarm.
These vulnerabilities are: the underlying conflicts, particularly faith-based ones, that are swirling in our society just below the surface where formal politics plays itself out, the vulnerability of the polity to dharna politics that can bring the country to a standstill with only a handful of people, and lastly the critical choke points in the economy that, if plugged, can shut down the movement of food and fuel, with potentially catastrophic effects.
The relentless and extreme vilification of political parties as well as the political process is rendering these parties incapable of performing an essential function that few people even realise they perform. This function is basically to serve as a safety valve to dissipate the myriad conflicts that boil beneath the surface of our society endlessly. These conflicts wage across the many fault lines of our society, whether sectarian, linguistic, ethnic, class or other. The most elemental and powerful of these conflicts are those that rage around matters of faith and belief. Once unleashed, conflict involving matters of faith and belief can be impossible to contain, as the examples of Syria and Iraq are demonstrate.
But unlike those countries, whose misfortunes are, in large part, the result of intervention by outsiders, in Pakistan the monster of extremism and intolerance along faith-based lines is being invited into the mainstream of our life willingly, indeed garlanded with flowers and hailed as a hero. And all this is being done in order to attain petty, short-term, political objectives.
The political contest in the mainstream needs to remain within the bounds set by the system.
The mainstream political parties have their faults, defects and dysfunctions. But each has deep roots in society, and by channelling the pushes and pulls emanating from these roots through the democratic political process, they serve as valves to dissipate these conflicts within society so they don’t assume disruptive and uncontrollable forms.
The level of vilification that the democratic system and its mainstream parties are being subjected to these days has the dangerous, and perhaps unintended, side effect of rendering them incapable of functioning as safety valves to dissipate these conflicts. The groups that are invested in the assertion of an extremist mindset and intolerant values, of violence as a tool to achieve political goals and the peddling of hate, all stand to gain when the democratic system is bludgeoned so relentlessly.
This is why the political contest in the mainstream needs to remain within the bounds set by the system. A Pakistan without the large mainstream political parties will not be a ‘corruption-free’ and dynamically growing Pakistan, as some naively like to imagine. It will be an arena for a fierce, faith-based, contest for supremacy between these groupings, with all others caught in the crossfire.
The second major vulnerability has been exposed by the repeated shutdowns of the capital through sit-ins. The process began with the dharna of Tahir-ul-Qadri in January 2013. Long marches to the capital have a longer history in our politics, with the PPP launching one each in 1992 and 1993, both abortive. Nawaz Sharif launched his in 2009 to demand the restoration of the chief justice, also abortive since the demand was met before his caravan got past Gujranwala.
But what changed in 2013 with Tahir-ul-Qadri’s march was the arrival of preachers from the Barelvi school, with huge congregations of followers, into the scene. Twice TuQ staged the same dharna, with demands that were only partly political. Both times he returned empty-handed. Even the PTI, which piggybacked onto TuQ’s venture second time round, could only huff and puff for three months demanding the resignation of the prime minister, only to return with the resignation of their own party president in hand.
The present lot from the Labbaik crowd, on the other hand, took only 21 days to get their pound of flesh before heading back. Now the real game begins, as the government comes under pressure to implement the terms of the ‘agreement’ signed with them, and faces a rolling and endless cascade of demands from one preacher after another. There is no end to the number of preachers like Rizvi who can get a band of a few thousand dedicated followers to march on the capital.
The third vulnerability is equally critical. Pakistan has one port city with two functioning ports. On Saturday night a small sit-in was getting going on the KPT flyover outside Karachi port, where all oil and container traffic goes. The sit-in was persuaded to leave by Sunday morning, but if they had succeeded, they could have shut down much of the country’s oil imports as well as external trade. A small disruption in the fuel supply chain due to the spread of the sit-ins around the country this time led to a small-scale shortage and panic buying of petrol in Lahore within 24 hours.
A 48-hour disruption of oil movement can shut down all vehicular traffic in the cities within days. With this shutdown comes food movement, again within a few days. A truly determined group, with backing from powerful quarters, can potentially shut down the country and create food shortages in the cities within a week.
Now put the pieces together and look at the picture that emerges. A cut-throat power struggle at the top of the political pyramid, coupled with the disproportionate power that has just been handed to individual preachers with small and medium-sized congregations, and the fragility of our food and fuel logistics and choke points in our external trade mean the potential to hold the country to ransom with ease has been thoroughly exposed, and it is truly frightening to contemplate where this could take us.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2017