Independence Day

Najam Sethi 08 Aug 2014

In the life of every nation-state, Independence Day is celebrated with collective joy and thanksgiving. It is the one day in the life of every country when internal squabbles are buried and the nation rises as one to face the world. Unfortunately, however, this tradition is on the anvil in Pakistan. Imran Khan is trying to turn August 14, 2014, into a day of political division, upheaval and violence. Dr Tahirul Qadri, the Canadian-Pakistani televangelist-cleric, is only marginally less mindful of the sanctity of August 14, having announced that his “revolution” will engulf the political system after August 14 but before August 30.
Both gentlemen are promising nothing less than a “revolution”. The problem is that for Imran Khan a “revolution” only means the replacement of Nawaz Sharif’s regime by Imran Khan’s regime after another round of elections under the constitution while for Dr Qadri it means the replacement of the current constitutional system with an undefined one led by Dr Sahib himself. If this were merely a sign of politics as usual, we would not be worried. But the rhetoric seems ominously like an invitation to a beheading of democracy by the military. That, too, might not be totally unacceptable if the track record of the military in politics could provide a fig leaf of justification. But the three military interventions since independence are primarily responsible for the strategic drift, violent sectarian strife and political turmoil in which Pakistan finds itself today.
It is also unfortunate that Nawaz Sharif, as prime minister, has not been able to display the wisdom and vision expected and is partly responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves. If the military had not been so unnecessarily estranged for a couple of provocative reasons, neither Imran nor Dr Qadri would have dared to stake their political fortunes and adventures on a suitable intervention by it.
No matter. Albeit belated, Mr Sharif is now using his political capital with allies and opposition alike to persuade Imran Khan and Dr Qadri to hold their horses. A national consensus is already evident against any attempt to provoke military intervention. Former president Asif Zardari (PPP), Maulana Fazal ur Rahman (JUI), Asfandyar Wali (ANP), Sirajul Haq (Jamaat i Islami), Altaf Hussain (MQM) and other political luminaries have been roped in to protect the sanctity of August 14. It appears that the government has adopted a carrot and stick policy to deal with the situation. The carrot of detailed scrutiny of a number of electoral constituencies is being offered to Imran Khan and the stick is being brandished before Dr Qadri. Both have unprecedentedly exhorted their militant followers to assault the police if any attempt is made by the government to thwart them. Consequently, the police has filed FIRs and moved in force to surround Dr Qadri’s residence.
Dr Qadri says he will announce his plans on August 10. He is unsure of whether to join Imran Khan – and risk losing the leadership of the “revolutionary” movement to him – or to go it alone and be isolated. Similarly, Imran Khan is aware of the serious fissures in his party and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government over his announced plans. No one wants to resign from the provincial or national parliament and be left stranded. Indeed, the public utterances of party stalwarts signal confusion and disarray. The PTI’s parliamentary spokesmen assure everyone that the PTI abhors violence and will abide by peaceful constitutional norms in making demands while Imran Khan thunders outside parliament about overthrowing the government via street mob power. Deep down, both avengers know that if the military were to intervene because of any anarchy engineered by them, they would not necessarily be its direct beneficiaries.
Most pundits are agreed on one point: the military wants to cut Nawaz Sharif down to size, like it did Asif Zardari, and is principally averse to any direct take-over. It has bluntly signaled its displeasure of certain government policies and is pulling strings to activate disgruntled elements in the opposition and media to help it achieve its objective. It is also now clear that Mr Sharif has finally woken up to the pitfalls of his earlier defiance of the military and may be amenable to a change of course on certain contentious issues.
If this is so, we should see some last minute “adjustments” by all the key players – PMLN government, GHQ and PTI – next week. This could take the form of an “agreement” between the government and PTI over electoral issues and a firm “commitment” to General Raheel Sharif by Nawaz Sharif to stay clear of military-designated areas of policy – which is reflected in a “postponement” of the “tsunami-march revolution”. This may be supplemented by a short stint in the cooler for Dr Qadri and renewed self-exile in Canada because he has unfortunately left no fallback position for himself.
Of course, all these calculations could amount to zero if any of the key players is unreasonably unbending. Then all bets will be off.