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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 34 New Delhi August 11, 2018

What Pakistan Poll Outcome holds for South Asia

Monday 13 August 2018

by Mahendra Ved

India’s former Chief Election Commissioner and scholar S.Y. Quraishi once told a gathering that Islam and democracy are not always compatible. It shocked some Muslims present, prompting them to privately inquire whether he was a Muslim. An observer in the just-concluded polls in Pakistan, he is not the first to say this.

This is the record of most Muslims and/or Muslim majority nations from Malacca to Mediterranean where democracy, not necessarily in its ideal manifestation, has proved elusive. Pakistan, about to get its 30th Prime Minister in seven decades, besides the military strongmen who have ruled for long years, reinforces this.

It is tad unfair to single out Pakistan. Many more nations practising varying forms of democracy, while adhering to democratic processes, have elected Right-wing demagogues with dictatorial instincts. Pakistan’s 11th general election has pushed the nation further to the Right, with little hope of any far-reaching changes in the lives of the people.

Mercifully, the parties and their candidates who represent the forces of pseudo-religious extremism and who had muscled into the country’s electoral system have been rejected by the people.

Knowingly, but unwisely fostered by the establishment, they are, however, unlikely to slow down their campaign for curtailing what-ever little freedom is allowed to women and the media. The persecution of minorities could increase. There is no indication that civil society will be allowed to work in peace.

Apprehensions arise as Imran Khan for long empathised with these forces to an extent that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) once nominated him to represent them to talk to the government. He supported former military ruler Pervez Musharraf after the latter’s 1999 coup, but fell out later. Musharraf famously called him “Taleban Khan”. And now, exiled Musharraf supports Imran.

It was quite open. Fazlur Rehman Khalil, founder of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and a US-designated global terrorist with links to al-Qaeda, formally joined Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). With poll-day violence, not just the moderates, the mainstream Islamist parties also suffered electorally.

Undoubtedly the world’s first cricketing hero-turned-politician to become the Prime Minister, the Oxford-educated, urbane Imran Khan represents all the contradictions of many foreign-educated Third World leaders who must practice conservative politics. They abound in South Asia.

But this has been Imran’s USP with Pakistan’s young, the middle classes and the rich, nurtured on a conservative ethos for over four decades that saw two long phases of military rule. He was ideal for the military establishment that co-opted him to oust the three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif, its increasingly less pliable one-time protégé.

Sharif’s ouster through months of political engineering for which the military establishment also co-opted the judiciary, yet again, and what domestic and international observers have called ‘micro-management’ of the elections helped catapult Khan to the top.

This underscores the role the Army has come to play of wielding power without grabbing it, through remote control. This is the unanimous verdict of whosoever has watched Pakistan.

The establishment has got its man in, but limitations of this management of democratic processes are evident in the fractured popular mandate. Short of majority in the National Assembly, Imran must find allies. Smaller parties may join a coalition but managing it may turn out to be difficult for Imran, the one-man show used to dictating and being idolised.

Next, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), that the establishment blacklisted and engineered an exodus from it, has managed three-scores of seats, albeit a half of Imran’s score. It has emerged at the top in the all-too-critical Punjab province. Whoever forms the Punjab Govern-ment, it is not going to be easygoing.

The once-powerful and popular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), manipulated to keep away from joining forces with Nawaz, has retained its support base in Sindh.

The loser in Sindh is the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the party of ‘mohajirs’ or migrants from British India. It controlled and even terrorised Karachi, the commercial capital. Split into three and defanged with the ouster of its exiled founder Altaf Hussain, one of its factions may join Imran. MQM’s loss marks the decline of the mohajirs in Pakistan’s life, in political terms if not economic.

The entire phalanx of losing parties, alleging large-scale rigging and irregularities, has demanded a re-election. This is a near-impossibility.

There were two ‘spoilers’. One was Khan’s ex-wife Reham’s tell-all book levelling serious charges that seemed the work of a journalist and not a gossipy society lady. It was timed for the elections. Khan, well advised by his promoters, decided not to react at all and give currency to the book’s content.

The book was ostensibly digested by Pakistan’s netizen that, however, do not go to the polling station. Beyond mud-slinging with the hope that some would stick, the book’s impact is doubtful. A deeply patriarchal society, Pakistan is not Europe or America.

The other was a speech by Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court who created a stir by accusing the intelligence agencies, specifically the arm’s ISI, of interfering in affairs of the judiciary. A maverick, he has earned the ire of the establishment. Forget the polite language of the twitter posting by the Army’s PR chief Asif Ghafoor, it was nothing short of a publicly expressed demand to sack the offending judge.

An enraged Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar denounced attempts being made “to defame the judiciary” and vowed that ‘justice’ would be dispensed to the rebellious judge. Post-elections, he is heading the Bench that is hearing petitions against the rebellious judge.

Neither the foreign media, nor the observers, were amused at the way the polls were conducted. The US State Department concurred with the European Union and the Common-wealth Observers and with the fears expressed by the Human Rights Commissions of Pakistan.

As a nation that loves cricket, India would have wanted to welcome Imran. To be fair, he was not anti-India like, say, Javed Miandad. Hence, the only people excited are Imran’s starry-eyed cricket lovers innocent of or unmindful of how his political career has shaped or that the forces that have brought him to power live and thrive on being anti-India.

Officially, the reaction was cautious as India does not see prospects of ground reality changing. With Imran expectedly making Kashmir the ‘core’ issue and harping on the UN resolutions, his so-called olive branch means little. Only Track-II dialogue may resume at some stage.

Any understanding of global affairs says that not talking cannot be a permanent posture in diplomacy. Also, since both countries are nuclear-armed, that is a cause for concern to everyone, far and near. It is a fact that both the USA, that has India as its security ally, and China, that is backing Pakistan on just about every issue, are pressing both to talk and let peace have a chance.

Regionally, although Pakistan’s ultra-Right lost electorally, the genie has been out of the bottle for too long. Its growing presence poses a threat to not just Pakistan, but the whole region, especially India with which it has perma-nently hostile relations and with Afghanistan where its intentions are predatory. As most of these groups are hardcore Sunnis and are avowedly anti-Shia, Iran would have cause to worry.

How China, that has invested millions with millions more in the pipeline in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), views the new political reality and tackles it would be worth watching. The CPEC is the flagship of its global BRI. Its Pakistan investments can bear fruit only amidst relative peace and stability. Gwadar, the port China has invested heavily in to gain access to the Indian Ocean, cannot function to its optimum capacity as long as Balochistan’s militant groups defy the Army. Imran has arrived when geopolitical war has intensified in Asia. India is seen with the US while Pakistan and China are in the other group with tacit support of Russia that has moved close to China to prevent the American advances. After all, America needs Pakistan to let it withdraw honourably from Afghanistan where it is stuck for 17 years with no sign of winning. So, much as Indians may feel important and strong, Pakistan, too, has its uses.

There is speculation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had invited leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Coope-ration (SAARC) to his swearing-in 2014, could bless the new government in Islamabad along with other SAARC players, should such an invite go out from Imran.

As both neighbours enter next month the 71st year of their respective independence and the Partition that came with it, will there be a “South Asia Moment”?

(Courtesy: Lokmarg)

The author, a columnist for the New Strait Times, Malaysia, is a senior journalist who is currently the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA).

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