NEW DELHI, FRIDAY, APRIL 26, 2013
ISLAMISTS PREPARE FOR GRAND HOME-COMING
By G Parthasarathy
People of Pakistan are heading towards a rule by a fractious coalition. But, unlike in the past where moderate parties like the MQM and the ANP held the balance, extremist groups are expected to play a greater role
Pakistan is being torn apart by sectarian and communal violence, in which hundreds of Shias have perished and the Christian and Hindu minorities terrorised by extremist Sunni groups, ranging from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. The port city of Karachi, always a hotbed of violence, saw new dimensions to sectarian and ethnic violence, as the Pakistani Taliban took control of Pashtun dominated areas in the city, from the moderate Awami National Party. The arrival of the Taliban in Karachi has produced continued blood-letting between Taliban-oriented Pashtuns and Muhajirs, pledging loyalty to Altaf Hussain’s Muttahida Quami Movement.
In Punjab, the extremist Sunni Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which enjoys the patronage of Rana Sanaullah, a senior leader of Mr Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N), has mercilessly targeted Shias, Ahmedis and Barelvis. Its arrested cadres reportedly enjoy benign judicial protection from no less than Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, said to be a cousin of Rana Sanaullah. The situation is even more tense in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where the TTP is targeting candidates of the secular Awami National Party, whose leader Asfandyar Wali Khan has been unable to campaign even in his hometown Charsadda, near Peshawar. In Balochistan, the Pakistani Army continues its brutal operations against the Balochi tribal resistance, with reports emerging of bodies of Balochi militants being mutilated by the Army.
Pakistanis now appear to have become inured to such violence. Candidates are busy electioneering. The election process has been complicated by constitutional provisions introduced by General Zia ul-Haq. All candidates are required to have “adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practices and obligatory duties prescribed by Islam”. The Constitution also requires rejection of those “opposed to the ideology of Pakistan”. It requires candidates to be “sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest and Ameen”. These provisions have led to returning officers initially rejecting the candidature of former Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and General Pervez Musharraf, who now faces court proceedings. Pakistan is paying a high price for its Sharia’h laws, designed to promote Salafi extremism. The ‘blasphemy law’ in the country, also enacted during the rule of General Zia, results in religious minorities being intimidated, arbitrarily arrested and subjected to threats of death penalties.
A recent public opinion poll in Pakistan gave a clear indication of the mood of the youth, which is going to play an important role in the forthcoming elections. 94 per cent of the youth thought the country was going in a wrong direction. Society at large is becoming more religiously conservative. 64 per cent of the male youth and 75 per cent of women are religiously conservative. There is little optimism about prospects of employment for the youth. Islamic Tanzims are drawing more and more disenchanted youth. The survey revealed that, while only 29 per cent of young Pakistanis support democracy, 32 per cent favour military rule, while 38 per cent favour the imposition of Sharia’h laws. Such attitudes are significantly prevalent in the Pashtun-dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, in Punjab and also in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan.
With the exception of President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, Asfandyar Wali Khan’s ANP and Mr Altaf Hussain’s MQM, virtually all other parties are resorting to anti-American sloganeering. India, though, finds little mention in election rhetoric. There are virtually no references to Kashmir. Mr Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehriq-e- Insaf acknowledges that armed jihadi groups in the country include “Kashmiri militants”.
Despite spiralling inflation, endemic power shortages, rising unemployment and falling growth rates, economic issues find very little mention in public debate. The economic manifesto of President Zardari’s PPP sounds like a booklet of India’s populist National Advisory Council. The manifesto focuses scant attention on measures to enhance savings and investment and accelerate economic growth. It dwells predominantly on “people’s schemes” that target the youth and others, apart from “direct subsidies” for “working masses” and other sections of society. The PML(N) manifesto, however, is akin to what Indian business chambers advocate. It substantially endorses the recommendations of the Pakistan Business Council, pledging to revive privatisation, restore the confidence of investors and advocates measures to deal with short-term and long-term economic issues.
The focus of attention in the forthcoming election will be on the populous Punjab Province, which accounts for 182 of the 342 parliamentary seats. Northern and Central Punjab, from which the bulk of the Pakistani Army is recruited and which is the home of terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, have for long been the stronghold of Mr Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N). On the other hand, Southern Punjab, which is Seraiki-dominated and not Punjabi speaking, is a region where rich, landowning Pirs like former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani are influential, has been a PPP stronghold. Uncertainty on how these two parts of Punjab will vote has arisen primarily because Mr Imran Kha’s party could well rally the disaffected youth and split the votes of the PPP and the PML(N). The trump card for the PPP remains its promise to create a separate province for the disaffected Seraiki speaking population in Southern Punjab. It can also expect support from Shias worried by the ties of Mr Sharif’s party with armed, extremist Sunni groups.
The widespread expectation is that the ruling PPP will lose a number of seats because of the anti-incumbency sentiments resulting from declining growth rates, spiralling inflation, prolonged power cuts and charges of corruption. The PML(N) could well emerge as the largest single party in Parliament. But, Mr Imran Khan, backed by the military, could eat into votes that were assured for Mr Nawaz Sharif in the past. He has evidently impressed the youth and the women, and has spoken out against the rich and privileged. His economic manifesto speaks of reviving the agricultural sector.
Pakistan appears to be heading towards rule by a fractious coalition. But, unlike in the past where moderate parties like the MQM and the ANP held the balance, Islamist parties are expected to play a greater role in the months ahead. Significantly, Army Chief General Kayani recently averred: “Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and Islam can never be taken out of Pakistan”.
It is evident that neither the Army nor the political establishment has the will or inclination to take on radical Islamic groups like the TTP, the JeM and the LeT. This is not good news for India or Afghanistan, and will be viewed with concern in capitals like Washington and Moscow.