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Of doubts and suspicions

January 13, 2013

Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran (TMQ) chief Tahirul Qadri.—Photo by Reuters

Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s agitation, by his own demands, is meant to achieve three things: i) a new election commission; ii) a caretaker government set up through consultation with the military and the judiciary; iii) a strict implementation of the eligibility criteria for election candidates.

This is, by all means, a tall order – in particular because there is no constitutional and democratic quick fix solution to bring these changes about overnight. But, on the flip side, these demands manifest what Qadri’s recent foray into politics is all about. He wants to change the rules of a game which he himself is ineligible to play.

Why? This is the most obvious, and perhaps also the most pertinent question being raised about Qadri’s demands and agitation over the last three weeks. His own answer: for the sake of the people of Pakistan. It is, however, not clear how a new election commission, a caretaker government blessed by the General Headquarters and the Supreme Court and a strict enforcement of some religious and moral standards for a decidedly worldly affair called politics can create a system that will take care of all the economic, political, ethnic, sectarian and violent phenomena facing and threatening Pakistan’s existence. By whittling down his agenda to these three demands, Qadri has achieved a climb down after having set about to ward off threats to the very existence of the state. In fact, he has succeeded in doing the opposite of what his self-assigned and self-professed agenda of saving the state ostensibly aimed at: instability, uncertainty and anarchy, all existing before he announced his march on Dec 23, 2012, have only increased since then.

Then there is another thing that has happened. Due to the massive gap between his sweeping, idealistic religious rhetoric and his actual mundane demands, politics seems to have taken precedence over the state. Election commissions, caretaker governments and eligibility criteria for elections, after all, are nothing if they are not about politics. Unless he now starts telling his supporters that politics – electoral politics, that is – is the only way to save the state, he has already turned his agenda upside down.

The question that rises again is what for. Who wants a new election commission in Pakistan? Two main parties in the parliament – the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) do not; nor do the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), despite initially having decided to take part in Qadri’s long march, the Awami National Party (ANP) and myriad other parliamentary groups and parties. Even those outside the parliament, like Imran Khan and Jamaat-e-Islami, have also not demanded that. The only party which so far has raised any objection against the current election commission and its chief is the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q). In the wake of recent by-elections in Punjab, the party accused the election authority of partisanship. Is Qadri, then, advancing the PML-Q’s agenda? Were the PML-Q leaders telling him on Saturday that he no longer needs to take to the streets after the issue has been sufficiently raised in the public arena? No incriminating evidence exists to answer these questions in the affirmative but, as events have unfolded over the weekend, there is certainly a lot of room for speculation and conjecture.

The next two demands are aimed at giving the military and the judiciary a strong say, and a possible veto, in the processes in which the constitution doesn’t allow them any role. The caretaker government has to come about through a constitutionally mandated procedure which leaves absolutely no room for consultations with power centres outside the parliament. Similarly, the right to decide who can contest an election and who cannot, first and foremost, lies with the election commission. But certainly only the judiciary, in its current hyperactive mode, can turn the constitution’s vague moral edicts into concrete judicial verdicts to bar candidates on a mass scale from taking part in the polls.

All this begs the same question again and again. What is it for Qadri in all this? His own Pakistan Awami Tehreek is not a registered party eligible to take part in the polls. He himself is a Canadian citizen and cannot run in an election without giving that up; his party machine is non-existent and his track record at the ballot is dismal, if anything.

One possible answer is that he has got carried away by his reception in Lahore three weeks ago and then by listening to the echo of his own sound in television talk shows as well as during his parleys with even the government’s coalition partners. By the time the media started questioning his motives and his sympathizers and supporters among political parties began deserting him one after the other, it was too late for him to take back his plans for the long march.

Well, this is quite possible. But it does not look plausible. Qadri is too well-informed and experienced to allow himself to be taken in by the spontaneous overflow of religious passion among his followers after his return from abroad after almost half a decade. He also knows his political base is miniscule and even his religious appeal is strictly limited to the followers of one sect – mainly in urbanizing parts of Punjab. In two elections that he contested, in 1992 and 2002, the total number of votes his party received remained paltry. His political worldview is either too idealistic to make sense to a Pakistani voter or it is too sectarian and too cut and dried to attract anyone beyond those already converted to his cause.

But Qadri also knows that he is capable of at least two things: creating occasional panic and trouble (like he has done with his long march) and sowing the seeds of doubt (through his broad-brush strokes of anti-regime, anti-incumbency sloganeering coated in pious statements about constitution, democracy and Islam) about the democratic transition just round the corner.

A successful, smooth transition which nobody doubts and disputes will certainly go a long way in strengthening democracy in Pakistan. But if there are eloquent naysayers, like Qadri, out there raising objections and questions about its constitutional and moral legitimacy, doubts will continue to linger in the public mind about the coming electoral exercise in particular and the effectiveness of democracy as a political system fit for Pakistan in general. It is in creating and perpetuating such doubts where Qadri’s importance lies. And regardless of how many people are there in his march or whether or not he succeeds to reach in front of the parliament, his mission is accomplished.

Qadri has certainly helped create a lot of uncertainty about an election that he refuses to accept even before it has taken place. The same goes for the transition that such a ‘questionable’ election – if and when it takes place – will result in. Both will remain subject to intense discussion, by him and by many other detractors of democracy, in the coming weeks and months raising the spectre of more uncertainty and instability.

Notwithstanding the scale of participation in his long march, Qadri has succeeded in denying Pakistan an uneventful and unanimously acceptable democratic transition. Without that taking place, the electoral experience is bound to remain under the scanner as well as under threat. He has played his role well, without keeping it a secret that he wants those institutions to play a role which are responsible for the security and the solidarity of the state. It is in this that Qadri’s slogan of saving the sate rather than saving politics assumes an extra-democratic, extra-constitutional significance. The trouble is that past attempts at saving the state by shunning politics have all ended in failure.

The writer is the editor of the Herald magazine