New Government, Old Problems

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Despite the imperfections of the 18 February election, the outcome was consequential. Analysts have waxed eloquent about the rout of the so-called king’s party and the religious right as well as the ascendancy of moderates.

Yet indecision typified the victors of the election who, for several weeks, procrastinated on government formation.  While politicians dithered about power sharing, chaos ensued. Extremists unleashed a chain of suicide bombings in the main cities of Pakistan.

Negotiations for establishing a national consensus government at the centre culminated in the Murree Declaration between the PPP and the PML (N). The six-point document contained the following critical element:

“This has been decided in today’s summit between the PPP and PML(N) that the deposed judges would be restored on the position as they were on November 2, 2007, within 30 days of the formation of the Federal Government through a parliamentary resolution.”

Self-adulation and premature optimism ensued obscuring a fundamental flaw in the arrangement which led to the formation of the coalition government.  Joint statements and overly optimistic banter camouflaged a core difference between the two parties.

PPP co-chairman Zardari, like president Musharraf, is apprehensive about the restoration   of the pre-3 November 2007 judiciary.  For the former, the possibility of a reversal of the National Reconciliation Ordinance weighs heavily while the latter fears the invalidation of the 5 October presidential election.

Nawaz Sharif, despite the attack on the Supreme Court by PML loyalists during his second prime ministerial term, has extended full-fledged support to the lawyer’s movement on the restoration of the judges. Any other course would have been unacceptable to civil society and resulted in adverse political consequences. Should the two mainstream parties fall apart, a new PPP-led coalition can be put together at the centre while the Punjab would be governed by the PML (N). This would be reminiscent of the friction between the centre and Punjab in the late 1980’s when the two parties were bitter adversaries.

After intra-party negotiations and inter-party conspiracies, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani secured a unanimous and unprecedented vote of confidence from the National Assembly and was finally sworn in as prime minister on 25 March 2008.

Gillani’s first act as prime minister was to free the judges under house arrest.  This resounded positively countrywide and rekindled the hope that the Murree Declaration would be implemented in letter and spirit.  The lawyers’ fraternity accordingly decided to hold their agitation in abeyance in order to enable the government to work out the modalities for the restoration of the judges.

In his maiden speech the prime minister also declared: “The war on terror has become our war, because it has posed serious threats to our own country.” The measures enunciated by Gillani to deal with the problem of extremist violence include a comprehensive economic and social package for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the prospective scrapping of the Frontier Crimes Regulation, and Madrassa reforms.

The prime minister has extended the olive branch to militants.  While addressing the parliament on 29 March 2008 he said, “We are ready to talk to all those people who are ready to give up arms and embrace peace.” The Tehreek-e-Taliban, in response to this offer, has laid down its own preconditions which include the imposition of Shariah and Jirga system and severance of all ties with the USA.  The Taliban leaders reiterated that their jihad against the Americans in Afghanistan would continue and that they would oppose Pakistan if it worked for “American interests as its ally.”

This show of confidence and arrogance on the part of the Taliban is indicative of the dominance they have over the tribal areas and their utter disregard for the writ of the state.

A similar situation prevails in Swat.  The militants that were routed by the army a few months ago have regrouped and returned under the leadership of Maullanah Fazlullah.  The NWFP assembly is considering possible negotiations with them and the prospect of implementing the Shariah is not out of bounds.

Negotiations under these conditions and dictates should not even be considered by the government.  These miscreants and their oppressive and obscurantist interpretation of Islam cannot be given such leeway.  Any compromise by the state will further embolden their movement.  Cowardly suicide bomb attacks on women, children and girls schools will become a norm in all cities of Pakistan.  The Lal Masjid episode, the weak-kneed reaction of the state and the chaos that followed in the federal capital is a prime example of what can be expected.

The problem is complex and multi-layered. The solution lies in a mix of military, political, economic and ideological initiatives.

Gen Kayani has affirmed the constitutional obligations of the armed forces and this means the military has to be depoliticised and work in tandem with the elected government. Only then can an effective civilian-military partnership so essential for the fight against terror be established. The ban on army officers from associating with politicians and their recall from civilian posts are welcome first steps.

Politically, the old administrative system of assistant commissioners, deputy commissioners and commissioners has to be revived. In FATA, the responsibility of dealing with the tribesmen, who should be associated with implementing state policy, must revert to the political agent.

The Political Parties Act of 1962 has to be implemented in the tribal areas.  The lack of secular political parties has provided religious outfits an unopposed playing field through the management of mosques and madrassas.

Madrassas have been referred to as “factories of terror” as they have been used to train and supply human resources to militant groups in Pakistan.  One of the prime reasons for their success has been their ability and willingness to offer basic amenities, such as board, lodging and education, which the state has failed to provide to families living below the poverty line.

The government has to reclaim the public services provided by religious seminaries. Massive projects on a national level pertaining to low income housing, educational and vocational training, health care and employment opportunities have to be implemented.  A recent study has shown that amongst the approximate 1.8 million students enrolled in Madrassas, economic and social reasons account for 89.58 percent of madrassa enrolment and the remaining 10.42 percent for religious, educational and political considerations. Once these basic necessities are met only then can the ideological battle against extremist violence yield results.

Recently Sheykh Waheeduddin Khan, a prominent Indian scholar stated that Dajjal, a concept that some theologians equate with the Islamic antichrist, is not a person, but is a manifestation of violence and terrorism. Shortly afterwards, no less than 20,000 Deobandi clerics collectively declared terrorism as un-Islamic.

The Taliban in Pakistan are also mostly Deobandis although the links with the Dar-ul-Uloom of India were severed after partition in 1947 and replaced by Wahabi influence and money. The question

that arises here is whether genuine madrassa reform can eventually erode the extremist ideology taught in the seminaries of Pakistan.

This four-pronged political, military, economic and ideological approach to effectively combat terrorism can only yield results through a collective effort involving the elected government, a reformed military and above all civil society.

The new Government faces formidable challenges.  It has inherited a constitutional crisis, terrorism, power outages, inflation and food shortages. However, the problems are not insurmountable and can be overcome through pragmatic measures reinforced by good governance.

S. Mushfiq Murshed