Pakistan’s New Political Narrative

In Pakistan, we are witnessing some unprecedented events likely to influence the state of power and politics in Pakistan. On May 26th when the Supreme Court Bar Association organized a seminar, which in fact was a lawyers political gathering, in the auditorium of the Supreme Court of Pakistan both inside and outside the auditorium militant political energy was witnessed. Inside every lawyer was attacking the President general Parvez Musharraf. One urged the corps commanders to send general Parvez Musharraf , another said Pakistan needs to become a welfare state looking after the people of Pakistan instead of being a security State looking after the 500,000 Pakistanis in the armed services of Pakistan and yet another declared the president was right that the reference issue is about a struggle between lies and between the truth and that the lawyers were on the side of the truth. For a much less an utterance about the army some years ago this regime threw the PML-N MNA Javed Hashmi in jail. In his case the Courts could not ensure a fair trial. Throwing any of these lawyers into jail is likely to multiply the lawyers militancy.

Outside the Supreme Court on May 26 the Constitution Avenue was yet again living upto its name. Before March 9 the jokes never ended as Pakistanis drove on this Constitution; the biggest avenue with the most farcical name; what Constitution in a country where martial law held sway over the people longer than civilian rule. Post March 9 thos ejokes should be no more. Thousands, from different political parties led by lawyers, have come out calling for rule of law, for Constitutional rule. On May 26 as the national anthem played inside the auditorium at the start of the seminar cum political meeting, the few thousands who sat outside on the Avenue witnessed it on the huge television screens put up by the organizers. It was a chilling scene as the diverse group of thousands sprung to their feet all at once and respectfully in complete silence and unity heard the national anthem. The energy was unmistakable. It was political and positive. However how this available raw material is utilized remains unclear.

Besides the lawyers-led movement there are those political groups that actively threaten the State. They believe that taking up arms against the State amounts to holy war.

These groups are increasingly using coordinated violence, attacking symbols of State power, specifically the army and law enforcement agencies. They are gradually investing themselves with the authority to enforce their own version of social morality by taking on shopkeepers, school administrations, cable operators etc. From the capital , the administrations of the the Lal masjid and the Hafsa madressa send out the victory signals to the already angry and organized groups determined to continue undermining State authority. These groups believe their ways are the ways of the ‘pious’ and hence the only one that alone can salvage the Muslims of Pakistan and beyond, from the ‘evils’ within and the ‘evils’ abroad; governments ranging from the Musharraf, Karazi and the Bush government .

While these militant groups maybe numerically small it is what they are able to do in public space and occupy in peoples’ hearts is what makes them big in impact. In these dark times calls to ‘social morality’ and to ritualistic piety invoking Quran and Sunnah will reverberate in the hearts of hundreds of thousands angered by exclusion, deprivation and disrespect within and outraged by the killing fields of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and to some extent in India Held Kashmir

Then there are the mainstream political parties. Essentially their politics is ‘business as usual.’ Though they are completely supporting the lawyers movement but as the opposition they have deployed no new strategies to convert the pressure points into a real threat to the government. An en bloc resignation from the National Assembly over May 12 failure of law enforcing agencies could have precipitated a serious political crisis. But a divided opposition cannot create a genuine crisis. Their eyes are on the October elections as they attempt to unite against general Musharraf. The likely electoral line-up will have the MMA, PML-N and Imarn Khan on the one side and the PPP contesting on its own. Meanwhile elements like the May 12 tragedy, the government’s refusal to hold an inquiry, its support for the MQM, the State pressure on Imran Khan, the MQM-Imran clash are all elements that are potentially problematic. Unless the Opposition can utilize these politically against the government they do not have dangerous repercussions.

In Pakistan, we have entered an ‘unhinged’ political period. Matters are now on a political boil.. It seems highly unlikely that either tinkering with the existing political alignments or deploying State power, overt and covert, will take the country back to the relatively manageable pre-March 9 political situation. When internal dynamics come alive the ability of the external factor to impact the situation is usually diminished. In Pakistan’s case given the connection between Washington and the leadership of the Pakistan army, Washington would to some degree impact the army leadership’s political decisions. Similarly given that Washington views PPP as the moderate party suited to be Musharraf’s partner, the PPP leader’s decisions on future political alignments could also be influenced, but to a much lesser extent, be influenced by the Washington factor.

In the realm of power and politics, there are two contests that are concurrently being fought. One, that wants to dictate the terms for use of State and political power. The lawyers and the militants groups are both seeking to redefine exercise of State power, one wants the Constitution of Pakistan while the militant groups want Islamic Shariah as they understand it, to dictate the terms for the exercise of State power and political power. The militant groups seek a far more invasive role of the State in ensuring that state, politics and society all function according to their version of shariah. Both these groups are contesting, at this juncture not against each other, but indeed against General Musharraf’s set-up which exercises State and political power.

Two, the other contest is between the political contestants who seek exercise State and political power. This includes all those political forces that participate in the electoral process political process including the leadership of the armed forces. Forces participating in these two contests do overlap but there are two distinct contests underway. And, undoubtedly, it is those who are struggling to dictate the terms for use and exercise of State power are the ones who have triggered the unhinging of the current set-up. The militant groups and the lawyers cannot be contained within the existing political system.

Pakistan is facing the fall-out of incessant failure of the State authority to ensure that its public space was controlled in accordance with constitutionally-determined rule of law. Instead Pakistani public space became the arena in which contesting groups patronized by civilian and military managers of Pakistan fought their battles, in which religious parties were encouraged to battles Nawaz Sharif’s Lahore summit plans, Nawaz Sharif set off his goons to attack the Supreme Court, the army moved 111 brigades to strike a coup, the armed Mujahideen groups were repeatedly encouraged to threaten civilian government on policy matters, the Zia regime encouraged hard-line ethnic groups to rise and fight the PPP whose leader he had illegally hanged, the PPP threw opposition leader sheikh Rashid in jail for raising a toy gun in public and took into custody the aging father of Nawaz Sharif, State power moved in to kill the callous yet the elderly elected Baluch leader, the present regime has also been responsible for over 200 plus ‘missing people’ and also indirectly involved in the death of at least two journalists in the tribal areas. There has been endless abuse of Pakistan’s public space by the State and the government.

Today, new players are contesting for ways in which public space should be managed. Unless the State can reclaim public space to enforce the dictates of law for all its citizens, equally internal security cannot return to Pakistan. The answers and response to that lie with movements focusing on rule of law and a stronger more credibly functioning State, in which the State institutions will play their Constitutional roles and the judiciary will ensure rule of law reining in the men and women who wield State and political power.

While the militant groups and the lawyers movement will continue their protests and battles with the Establishment, the two institutions that will determine if these protests and battles will lead to more mayhem or towards some saner arrangements is the Pakistan army leadership and the judiciary. They both wield genuine power –”one, now aided by the lawyers’ movement, derives it from the Constitution; the other from the weapons that they carry. Significantly though, within the domestic political context, undoubtedly, the corollary of increasing judicial power must be diminishing weapons power. Pakistan’s decades old power construct is now showing signs of discontinuity. The unprecedented transparency in the functioning of State institutions and of the wielders of power, ensured by Pakistan’s independent media, is also greatly contributing towards the emerging discontinuity within Pakistan power scene.