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The perfect mess

January 13, 2013


QADRI is on his way to Islamabad and the conspiracy theorists are in overdrive.

With facts scarcer than ever, there’s even a theory that he may not arrive in Islamabad tomorrow. The fundamental uncertainty of politics here means anything is possible.

Just how possible? Let’s recap, in no particular order of believability or widespread-ness, the conspiracy theories about who put Qadri up to this long march business.

Theory No 1: Zardari. The president wants to be re-elected as president. The electoral college — the provincial assemblies and parliament — is configured such at present that if the assemblies’ lives were somehow to be extended till the expiration of Zardari’s term in September, he’d be guaranteed re-election.

A general election could substantially change the presidential-election math, though. But how to postpone the general election, when the PML-N is waiting in the wings and the PTI is determined to try its luck?

The Qadri wildcard. Long-marching, slogan-chanting, game-changing Qadri appears out of nowhere and threatens political chaos — giving Zardari that elusive excuse to extend the life of parliament by means of some as-yet-unclear constitutional mechanism.

Theory No 2: MQM. The party of urban Sindh is obsessed with protecting its base. But nestled as its base is in greater — interior — Sindh, the MQM has to use every trick in the book and then some to get its way.

Tantrums, blackmail, threats, the MQM will do whatever it takes to ensure Karachi, and Hyderabad, remains under its control.

Strip away the theatrics from Altaf’s Thursday speech and you’re left with the mention of local government elections and the Sindh governorship. Assume, and this is quite a safe assumption, there are more demands that will never be heard of in public.

Demands that the MQM wants met, but how to get its senior coalition partner in Sindh and the centre, the PPP, to accede to those demands?

Enter Qadri. With street power at his command and a message that is in lock-step with the army-led establishment’s, Qadri’s arrival was meant to create a threatening uncertainty — an uncertainty about the establishment’s real intentions; an uncertainty that was supercharged when the MQM climbed on the Qadri bandwagon.

Give us what we want, the MQM appeared to be saying to the PPP, or we’ll help your enemies take you down. A credible threat because the MQM would not exactly struggle to find a place, or protect its interests, in the new dispensation.

Theory No 3: Americans/Brits. Disillusioned by the incompetence and drift of the last five years, worried that the next election will produce another hung parliament and weak government, desperate to keep Pakistan stable as the Afghan adventure winds down — do they need more of an incentive to try and shape politics here again?

Qadri’s international network, his ‘moderate’, Barelvi leanings, his diehard followers inside Pakistan, all of that makes him just the guy to jolt the political system, create the space for the democratic project to be paused and hand over the reins to a team of competents to guide the country out of the mess it is in.

All of it backstopped by the army, just when its cooperation in Afghanistan over the next couple of years is needed most. Better for the Americans to satisfy the man who can deliver here, Gen K, than to back the civilians who control little.

Theory No 4: Kayani. The power-grab theory by a power-hungry Gen K is straightforward enough. But there’s also a more exotic potential motive attributed to the general with a taste for the convoluted.

The Americans know Gen K will ultimately stand in their way, so they’d liked to see the back of him come November. A craven and pliant civilian government would help the Americans insert an ambitious but malleable successor in Gen K’s place.

That successor would then help the Americans achieve their dream of institutionally reshaping the army to better suit American interests in Pakistan and the region.

Ergo, to prevent the Americans from destroying the army from within, Gen K has activated Qadri. Once the democratic process is on hold, Gen K can continue beyond 2013 and protect the institutional integrity and independence of the army.

These wacky and weird theories have nothing in common, as befits most sets of conspiracy theories.

They do, though, hint at an underlying reality, a reality that is vexing and can appear unwelcome because it is chaotic. But within that reality may lie the seeds of systemic resilience and durability.

How is it possible for the same event — Qadri’s long march to get the elections postponed — to produce such wildly differing theories to cui bono, who benefits?

If the Zardari-wants-to-get-re-elected-by-the-present-assemblies theory is right, then that means he has enough power to exert his will over all the other players in the game.

If the Kayani-wants-to-prolong-his-reign-for-whatever-reason theory is correct, then that means he has enough power to exert his will over all the other players in the game.

Both can’t simultaneously be correct, for Kayani and Zardari are both central players in the power game on the national stage.

There’s a simpler explanation — and it also explains the existence of the contradictory conspiracy theories: no player has the ability to impose their will on all the other players. Nobody can get all that they want in the battle for control.

Not Kayani. Not Zardari. Not Qadri. Not Sharif. Not CJ Iftikhar. Not the Americans. No one.

It’s not elegant or easy to grasp, like a stalemate in a game of chess — which explains the frustration of everyone, including a bemused public.

But this messy, noisy, ugly-looking draw that events and moves by the various players have helped engineer has one distinct advantage: it favours continuity.

Shake it, rattle it, batter it, and yet it survives — allowing the country to inch closer to one thing it’s never had: a civilian-led transition.

The old order may resent it, the public today may not appreciate it, but give the unwanted its due: let’s hail the perfect mess.

The writer is a member of staff. Twitter: @cyalm