Finding a way out of the present political predicament
The political process does not move smoothly in Pakistan. It faces crisis after crisis. As the country is close to holding the new election, a religious scholar, Dr Tahirul Qadri, returned to Pakistan from Canada in December 2012 with a saviour complex to cleanse politics and society from all ills and turn it into a heavenly place with angels contesting the elections. For this purpose he plans to mobilise his religious followers into a protest movement that would march on to Islamabad to force the rulers to quit and ensure that a government of his choice is established which would ensure the implementation of his agenda.
As an articulate Islamic scholar and speaker, Tahirul Qadri has developed a large popular support as a Bralevi cleric. However, the scholars and leaders of other Islamic-denominational traditions question his scholarship and a good number of scholars and leaders of the Bralevi tradition dispute his political agenda. Most political parties are opposed to his agenda. He is convinced that he would neutralise all opposition and cause the collapse of the federal government or force the traditionally powerful military to either replace the current federal government with a government acceptable to him or it will assume power directly in support of his agenda.
Dr Tahirul Qadri’s desire to convert his religious appeal into political power is not a new development. He made such an attempt in the early ’90s when he established a political party, as a political arm of his Tehrik-e-Minhaj-ul-Quran, that fielded candidates in more than one election. He himself got elected to the National Assembly in 2002. However, he and his political party could not make any impact on Pakistani politics that resulted in folding up of his party and he left for Canada for, as he himself claimed, research and writing work on Islam.
Now, Tahirul Qadri is making another bid to launch him in politics by invoking the support of his religious followers in a manner that he commands political clout while staying out of any formal office – a new incarnation of Ayatollah Khomeini who folded up the Shah regime in Iran by mobilising his religious loyalists. The situation in Pakistan is very different from Iran of the Shah days and that, unlike Khomeini, Qadri is a controversial religious leader and his latest bid has increased controversies about his role. In Pakistan, no religious or political leader can succeed in a sole political flight because of increased disharmony, conflict and ungovernability.
His position has been strengthened because of the support of the MQM leader, Altaf Hussain, who declared that the MQM would join his long march to Islamabad. The MQM has two major grievances against the PPP that led it to support Tahirul Qadri. The PPP’s quiet support to the Supreme Court direction to review the electoral constituencies and electoral rolls in Karachi has angered the MQM which feels that these steps, exclusively confined to Karachi, are meant to undermine the political position of the MQM.
It has joined Dr Tahirul Qadri for registering its protest against the attitude of the PPP on the above mentioned two issues. The MQM is pursuing a self-contradictory strategy because it has thus joined the Qadri-led protest to dislodge the government that includes the MQM itself. Similarly, it is ironic that Qadri is collaborating with the MQM when it is part of the government that is being blamed for the ills of Pakistan. He should have insisted on renunciation of participation in the government by the MQM.
Tahirul Qadri is quoting the constitution profusely to show that his demands are within the parameters of the constitution. In reality, Tahirul Qadri’s demand for the change of government with a government acceptable to him has no constitutional basis. According to the constitution, federal and provincial governments can be changed either through the national or provincial assemblies respectively or through general elections. All other methods of change of government are unconstitutional.
If the PPP succeeds in holding back the MQM from the Qadri-led march to Islamabad, the Qadri movement will be weakened. Tahirul Qadri could still undertake the march to Islamabad with his loyal followers but he will not be able to cause the collapse of the government. Further, his sit-in in Islamabad cannot last long because of cold winter weather.
However, his plan can cause confusion and chaos but his desire to become the real power broker in Pakistan that decides who rules Pakistan is not going to materialise. The risk of a terrorist attack on the marchers cannot be ruled because the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and other militant groups do not accept him as a genuine Islamic leader. In case of a terrorist attack, there can be bloodshed and violence.
His methodology of protest is a threat to democracy and political stability. If anything, his protest march will shift the political initiative to the military top brass who would then be in a position to decide whether to hold the elections on time or postpone them for cleansing the political domain. Traditionally, if the military assumes political role, it does not play on the tunes of a political leader or a civilian group. It keeps the initiative to itself. It may use political leaders to its advantage but does not get used by partisan political leaders. Therefore, Tahirul Qadri should not expect the top brass to line up at his back. He can strengthen their clout in the political system that may adversely affect the future of democracy and Qadri himself will also be a loser.
The Qadri movement appears to be oblivious of the major threats to Pakistan which are the faltering economy and religious extremism and terrorism. Qadri has ignored these issues in his discourses in his desperate bid for political leadership. If these problems are not addressed the cleansing of the society will prove to be a futile exercise. These issues require a joint struggle on the part of political and societal leaders rather than seeking a leadership role by mixing religious appeal with populous political slogans.
The long term interests of the military and Pakistan as a nation state will be served if the military continues to pursue its current agenda of fighting terrorism and coping with internal security threats. It need not get actively involved in day-to-day political affairs. Given the military’s track record over the last five years, its top brass are expected to advise moderation, constitutionalism and elections as a way out of the political predicament.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.