Missing the Bus

18 May 2007


Political unrest in Pakistan is strengthening the hands of the Islamists at the cost of Musharraf''s authority that had kept open the door to an agreement with India on Kashmir. By Prem Shankar Jha

Prem Shankar JhaFor two years the doors to a lasting peace in Kashmir and an end to six decades of hostility with Pakistan had been held open for India by the most unlikely of persons – Pervez Musharraf. For all of those two years Indian policy makers spared no effort to find reasons not to go through it. Last weekend those doors began to swing shut. India will need to act decisively and show exceptional foresight to keep them open.

The doors began to swing shut in Karachi last Saturday. There was nothing quiet about what happened there — 34 people paid with their lives for a piece of political theatre that many in Pakistan believe was engineered by Musharraf through the MQM to give him an excuse to call off the October presidential election.

But so great has been its impact upon Pakistan''s domestic politics that its implications for Indo-Pak relations and the future of Kashmir have gone completely unnoticed. In Karachi the democratic opposition, which had muted its criticism of his regime for years, has shed its inhibitions and came out against him in force. With that the moderate, centrist coalition that Musharraf had forged after he seized power in 1999, has finally collapsed

The idea that Musharraf, a military dictator, set out to forge a centrist coalition is not easy to digest, because the word is normally used to describe arrangements between political parties. What Musharraf set out to forge soon after he came to power was a coalition of centrist forces within the country. And in that he was eminently successful.

This gave his authoritarian rule a distinctive flavour from the very beginning. He got rid of his main political opponents not by executing, assassinating or imprisoning, but by exiling them. He tried, and to some extent succeeded, in forging a tacit agreement with the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples'' Party to tone down political conflict in the national interest. Most important of all, far from muzzling the press he gave it a degree of freedom that it had not known since the early ''50s. It is in his time that private television came to Pakistan.

From virtually his first days in office Musharraf sought to discourage religious extremism, and build a modern Islamic state. His initial attempts to prevent militants from carrying arms in public and raising donations for Jihad were half-hearted, but that changed after 9 / 11.

Faced with a virtual ultimatum from the US to join the invasion of Afghanistan or face the destruction of vital security installations Musharraf decided to turn crisis into opportunity and launch a grand project to turn Pakistan into a modern Islamic state on the lines of Ataturk''s Turkey. He turned his back on the Taliban, delivered Al Qaeda cadres in the hundreds to the Americans, banned a round dozen sectarian organisations and announced an ambitious programme to close down Madrassas that were turning out terrorists and modernise education in the remainder.

Musharraf also tried to bolster Centrist forces in Pakistan by adopting a consensual style of governance. A strong believer in the power of persuasion, he developed the habit of prefacing or, when that was not possible, explaining his decisions on crucial issues to representative groups from the political parties, religious organisations, think tanks, and journalists.

He also sought to minimise conflict and expand the area of consensus by bringing some of the most restive elements in the country into parliament and making them part of his ruling coalition. He was especially successful in this with the MMA and the MQM. He tried to balance this by also, using his powers of nomination to bring staunch liberals into it. These include some of the most independent women activists in Pakistan and the unrelenting critics of military rule in the media.

In terms of concrete achievements he has not a great deal to show. The organisations he banned, like the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad, have continued to thrive under different names. His government has made at best limited progress in reforming the madrassas.

He failed to enact minor but important reforms in the blasphemy law and he all but backed out of his commitment to reform the infamous Hudood laws, enacted by Gen.Zia – ul-Haq in 1979: The amendment that the Pakistan parliament passed in November last year kept all of their iniquitous provisions – applied almost exclusively to women – intact. All it did was to make it possible for the accused to post bail.

Despite these failures, Musharraf came as a breath of fresh air to Pakistan''s people and its demoralised intelligentsia, for he was the first military ruler to turn his back on the fundamentalists and reached out to the liberal, moderate elements in Pakistani society. By doing so he empowered them to an extent that no previous Pakistani regime had been able to do.

But the centrist consensus that he built has been unravelling for some time. This is partly because of his own mistakes, but mainly because of the extreme unpopularity of the war- without-end in Afghanistan. The former have unleashed a spate of criticism in the media and the public that has sown the seeds of uncertainty in him and made him withdraw into a small circle of trusted advisers. Isolation has increased his tendency to miscalculate and make mistakes.

Musharraf''s decision to rely mainly on force to deal with the insurgency in Balochistan was one such mistake. This was highlighted by the reaction across the entire western part of the country from Quetta to Karachi after the killing of Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti.

His attempt to push the chief justice of Pakistan out of office was a second. There have been other, less conspicuous, errors of judgment.

The opposition''s decision not to back down on the chief justice issue has no doubt been influenced by the approach of the presidential election, which Musharraf is determined to push through with the existing parliament instead of after a fresh parliamentary election.

Had this been the only challenge that Musharraf faced he would have surmounted it with relative ease, because the opposition would have found it far from easy to explain to ordinary people how the removal of one person, or the transgression o a single convention, can alter their lives. But for more than a year Musharraf''s coalition has been fraying because of growing anger in Pakistan against the endless killing of Pashtoon civilians by NATO.

This and growing world-wide discrimination against Muslims has fed an insidious resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism that has begun to affect life even in Islamabad. Two firebrand clerics have attracted a number of banned militant organisations to a mosque known as the Lal Masjid,. Next door is the Jamia Hafsa – a self-styled Women''s Islamic University, which is sending burqa-clad brigades to invade children''s libraries, close down alleged brothels and kidnap their inmates and children. Students from the capital''s many Madrassas have ransacked dozens of music and video stores and made bonfires of their wares. Pakistan has experience three suicide bombings in the past three months, two of them in the past two weeks.

Pakistani liberals suspect that Musharraf is letting all this happen in Islamabad to justify re-imposing martial law if the need arises. But it is equally likely that he has been weakened by his involvement in the protracted Afghan war to the point where he no longer feels strong enough to tackle the resurgent fundamentalism head on. Either way, the peace talks are the last thing on his mind just now. This does not necessarily mean that they will have to be put on hold till after the elections. But to bring them to fruition New Delhi will have to take the initiative in a way that it has signally failed to do so far. It does not have much time left.

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

(The author''s articles can be read at www.premshankarjha.com)

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