The results of the Pakistan elections should be far less important than the fact that elections are taking place. There will always be theorists, who find comparisons between the past and present irresistible. It is possible, for instance, to see faint ghosts of 1970 and 1971, albeit in a reverse mirror image: a new West and East Pakistan emerging, with Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa gravitating towards dissension and bulwark Punjab holding up central space. In this scenario the Pakistan of 1947, halved in 1971, is being reduced to a mere Punjab in the teens of the 21st century.

Elections can trigger, or accentuate, seismic faults if sectarian passions find a correlation with geography. The decisive phase of the Bangladesh liberation movement began with a general election that confirmed that East and West Pakistan were politically split. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, argued forcefully after the verdict that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League had no moral right to rule the West because its mandate had come solely from the East. Awami League had an arithmetical majority in the national legislature, not a political one.

Bhutto was right. By the same token, his PPP had no claim over what is now Bangladesh since his party was not even in the contest in the East. Of course, Bhutto could never extend, publicly, the logic of his assertion.

But two contemporary realities make disintegration virtually impossible. Pakistan has a strong nationalist institution in the armed forces. Even in 1971, Bangladesh could not have been born without the defeat and humiliation of the Pak armed forces in a war against India. East and West would have had to find a different solution, but that is another story.

The extremists have also sharpened their appeal by exploiting a fundamental weakness of Pakistan’s democratic parties, their collective capitulation to feudalism.

Second, Tehrik-e-Taliban and its allies do not represent a threat to the geography of Pakistan. They are challenging what they believe is a wishy-washy compromise that currently passes as the ideology of the state. They want a hardline Islamic Pakistan, not a divided Pakistan. They believe a Sharia-driven Sunni Islam can check sub-nationalism. They do not want to drive the Baloch or the Pathan away; if anything, their dreams are expansionist, seeking ideological territory in Afghanistan and then an alliance with compatible Sunni movements and militias further west. If they have an enemy within the folds of believers, it is the Shia, who they condemn as heretics.

The Taliban has begun military operations against two sectarian parties: the MQM, the front of North Indian refugees, and ANP [Awami National Party] of the Frontier. The third enemy is PPP, which is likely to become a Sindh party after this poll. The Taliban is not talking about merely defeating them in elections. It is seeking to eliminate them physically. Over a hundred died, and more than 300 were wounded, during April alone, when campaign season began. At its end, former PPP Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani’s son, Ali Haider Gilani, was kidnapped in Multan. As Ahmad Rashid, the renowned author and journalist, put it, the “polarisation, murder and mayhem” are unprecedented.Image 2nd

In a land where peace is news, a large island of calm will inevitably invite questions. Strangely, or perhaps logically, there is little violence in Punjab. Most observers attribute this to an implicit understanding between the principal adversaries for power in Punjab, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. Even if this were true, this is only a very small part of the story.

The Taliban and its friends are wiser than we imagine. This is so obviously a tactical decision, not a strategic one. Taliban and Company believe they can seize the surround, providing them with a larger operating base for the final phase in their war for the control of Pakistan, which will take place in Punjab. Neither Imran nor Nawaz is a Taliban ally. For this election, the democrats [Nawaz and Imran], and Taliban are using each other as a cat’s paw. Their turn will come after the elections.

The extremists have also sharpened their appeal by exploiting a fundamental weakness of Pakistan’s democratic parties, their collective capitulation to feudalism. Pakistan has never had genuine land reform. Bhutto, who flirted with socialism, tried, failed and abandoned the thought. Islam plus land is a powerful slogan for the peasant. The New York Times quotes Maulana Abdul Khaliq Rehmani, a candidate of the Ahle-Sunnat wal-Jamaat, a legal offshoot of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, telling a rural rally: “Feudalism has paralysed Pakistan.” He also adds, for good measure, that “Islamabad is a colony of America.” The Jamaat has put up 130 candidates, and less than ten might win; but they are sowing seeds for conflicts within the near future. The most ominous result for Pakistan would be a confused legislature. It would encourage the worst instincts of the army and inspire hopes among extremists that their gun-stoked theocracy is the only option that can bring order to the country. This is what makes results more important than the polls. Whoever wins, should win big.


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