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Smokers’ Corner: Scary votes

January 27, 2013

Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Much has been analysed about why the PPP-led coalition government, the opposition (both within and outside the Parliament), and the security agencies have all been so hapless in the face of the ever-growing menace of extremist violence in the country.

The government has done well to set an exceptional precedent of surviving its full term as an elected entity (a rarity in Pakistan), but it was just that: Survival.

Beyond this it has looked shaky, indecisive and at times almost paralysed in addressing issues such as sectarian violence and extremist terror.

On the other hand, the security agencies and the military-establishment have still to come to terms with political and ideological complexities arising from an awkward situation in which they find themselves face-to-face with brutal outfits, most of whom were once their strategic assets.

But there is also another aspect and dimension to this that doesn’t get the kind of attention that it deserves.

I am pointing towards the attitude of non-religious political parties that seem paralysed and awkwardly placed when it comes to addressing the issue of extremism.

For example, we keep hearing why so and so political parties can’t go all out in supporting bills, resolutions and policies against extremist outfits because they don’t want to offend the sentiments of a particular section of their voters.

Though this is calmly related in an analysis, the fact that this may also suggest support among large sections of the population for the brutes is never touched upon.

PML-N, though at this point in time the most vocal champion of democracy in Pakistan, has continued to remain ambiguous in its stance against extremist terrorism.

It condemns it, but never does this party take the names of those responsible for slaughtering over 40,000 soldiers, cops, politicians and common civilians ever since 2004.

One of the reasons given (by analysts) is that (in the Punjab), a vital section of the party’s vote-bank constitutes conservative right-wing petty-bourgeoisie and the trader classes.

So, is this to suggest that these classes (though not violent) actually have sympathies for sectarian and extremist organisations; and that they will refuse to vote for the PML-N if it supports any move against, say, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda or any of the many Sunni extremist organisations out there?

If so then this is certainly a cause for concern. It proves that violent anti-state outfits actually have support among certain sections of the population and that these sections are being patronised by democratic parties that should normally and inherently be anathematic to such a scenario.

Thus it does make sense then when one sees some PML-N men holding hands with members of banned sectarian organisations so the party can count on the votes of certain pro-extremist sections of the population in urban and semi-urban Punjab.

But PML-N is not the only non-religious party caught in the paradox of at least keeping one of its electoral branches rooted in the mentioned section of the population.

This is the same enigmatic section that Imran Khan’s PTI is also counting on to give him a numerical edge over the PML-N in an election.

That’s why, though recently Khan has decided to shed some of his ambiguity regarding his stance on Islamist and sectarian violence, till only early last year he was sending emissaries to rallies where some of the star speakers were sectarian bigots!

Even the more secular outfits such as the PPP and the MQM have gone on to appease and bag extremists on the other end of the sectarian spectrum.

For example, a few months back the PPP announced a possible electoral alliance with the Sunni Tehreek (ST).

ST is an organisation of Sunni Muslims from the Barelvi school that, though opposed to the extremist expressions of the Deobandi school of Sunni Islam (such as the Taliban), has its own extremist tendencies.

ST is often involved in organising anti-Taliban rallies, but this is the same outfit that considers those who kill supposed blasphemers as heroes.

That’s why the PPP’s decision to cosy up with ST also has a stark irony attached to it.

In January 2010, the PPP’s senior members and Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot dead by a man who accused him of committing ‘blasphemy.’ The man, Mumtaz Qadri, was hailed as a hero and ‘true soldier of Islam’ by the ST.

So, by getting into an alliance with ST, is the PPP expecting to get some electoral push by that section of the population which considers extrajudicial killers and self-styled vanguards of faith as admirable heroes?

The MQM’s case in this respect is a bit more complicated. Compared to the PPP and maybe even the ANP, it has flexed itself to be perhaps the most overtly secular mainstream party in the country.

In fact, it has continued to be at odds (sometimes violently) with the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and Deobandi extremists such as the Taliban and the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ).

Unlike the PPP, MQM has also been at odds with Barelvi parties such as the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP), and the ST.

Though MQM’s animosity against outfits such as JI, Taliban and LeJ have been largely ideological, its anti-ST stance has more to do with the fact that during the state’s operation against the MQM in 1990s, the more religious cadres of the party shifted their loyalties to the ST.

Recently the MQM tried to regain this ground by supporting Dr. Tahirul Qadri’s long march in Islamabad.

Qadri, an Islamic scholar from the Barelvi denomination, and a politician, heads the Minhajul Quran (MuQ) organisation that has a large following among the petty bourgeoisie in the Punjab.

It was obvious that Qadri had some backing of that segment of the establishment that is still trying to redefine and mould democracy, government, and the state of Pakistan in its own image.

But this article is not about that. Thus, even though it is true that the MQM has tried to remain close to the establishment ever since it rose from the ashes of the state’s operation against it in the 1990s, there was certainly talk within the party of banking on Qadri to help the MQM bag the moderate religious Barelvi vote in Karachi and maybe even in the Punjab.

MuQ is largely a Punjab-based organisation.

So, what does this prove? As we see the military-establishment and even non-religious political parties trying to strike partnerships with organisations that express varied extremist tendencies, all this also lays bare the fact that within the non-violent (and voting) sections of Pakistan’s population, are sections of ‘normal’ men and women who (with their vote) are willing to punish any party for actually taking a clear stand to counter extremism.