Walk the talk

Updated on May 22, 2007 03:47 AM IST
With Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on the backfoot, India must take charge of the peace talks, writes Prem Shankar Jha.
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None | ByPrem Shankar Jha

For two years, the doors to a lasting peace in Kashmir and an end to six decades of hostility with Pakistan had been held open for India by the most unlikely of persons — President Pervez Musharraf. But Indian policy-makers have spared no effort to find reasons not to go through it. And, now the doors have begun to shut. New Delhi will need to act decisively and show exceptional foresight to keep them open.

On May 12, 34 people paid with their lives for a piece of political theatre that many in Pakistan believe was engineered by Musharraf through the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) to give him an excuse to call off the October presidential election. But so great has been its impact on Pakistan’s domestic politics that its implications for Indo-Pak relations and Kashmir’s future have gone unnoticed. In Karachi, the democratic opposition, which had muted criticism of his regime, came out strongly against Musharraf. With that the moderate, centrist coalition that Musharraf had forged after he seized power in 1999, has finally collapsed.

The idea that Musharraf, a military dictator, set out to forge a centrist coalition is not easy to digest, but he did manage to do it successfully. This gave his authoritarian rule a distinctive flavour. He got rid of his main political opponents not by executing, assassinating or imprisoning, but by exiling them. He tried, and to some extent succeeded, in forging a tacit agreement with the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to tone down political conflict in the national interest. Most important of all, he gave the press a degree of freedom that it had not known since the early 1950s. It is in his time that private television came to Pakistan.

From his first days in office, Musharraf discouraged religious extremism, and tried to build a modern Islamic State. His initial attempts to prevent militants from carrying firearms in public and raising donations for jehad were half-hearted, but that changed after 9/11. Faced with an ultimatum from the US to join the invasion of Afghanistan or face destruction of vital security installations, Musharraf decided to turn crisis into opportunity. He launched a grand project to turn Pakistan into a modern Islamic State on the lines of Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey. He turned his back on the Taliban, delivered Al-Qaeda cadres to the Americans, banned around a dozen sectarian organisations and announced an ambitious programme to close down madrasas which bred and sheltered terrorists, and modernise education in the remaining religious schools.

Musharraf also tried to bolster centrist forces in Pakistan by adopting a consensual style of governance. A staunch believer in the power of persuasion, he developed the habit of prefacing or, when that was not possible, explaining his decisions to political parties, religious organisations, think tanks, and journalists. He also sought to minimise conflict and expand the area of consensus by bringing some of the most restive elements into Parliament and making them part of his ruling coalition. He was successful in this with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and the MQM. He tried to balance this by bringing liberals into it. These include some of the most independent women activists of Pakistan and the unrelenting critics of military rule in the media.

However, in terms of concrete achievements he doesn’t have much to show. The organisations he banned — Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad — continue to thrive under different names. His government has made limited progress in reforming the madrasas. He failed to enact minor but important reforms in the blasphemy law and backed out of his commitment to reform the infamous Hudood laws, enacted by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979; the amendment that the Pakistan Parliament passed in November kept all of its iniquitous provisions — applied almost exclusively to women — intact.

Despite failures, Musharraf was like a breath of fresh air to Pakistan’s people and its demoralised intelligentsia. He was the first military ruler to turn his back on the fundamentalists and reach out to the liberal and moderate elements. By doing so, he empowered them to an extent that no previous Pakistani regime was able to do.

But the centrist consensus that he built has been falling apart for some time. This is partly because of his mistakes, but mainly because of the unpopularity of the war-without-end in Afghanistan. The former have led to a spate of criticism and this has sown seeds of uncertainty in his mind and also made him withdraw into a small circle of trusted advisors. Isolation has increased his tendency to miscalculate and make mistakes.

Musharraf’s decision to rely on force to deal with the insurgency in Balochistan was one such mistake. This was highlighted by the reaction across the western part of the country from Quetta to Karachi after the killing of Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti. His attempt to push Pakistan’s Chief Justice out of office was the second mistake. There have been other, less conspicuous, errors of judgment.

The opposition’s decision not to back down on the chief justice issue has no doubt been influenced by the approach of the presidential election, which Musharraf is determined to push through with the existing Parliament, instead of going for it after a fresh election. Had this been the only challenge, Musharraf would have surmounted it with ease. The opposition would have found it difficult to explain to the people how the removal of one person, or the transgression of a single convention, can alter their lives.

But for more than a year, Musharraf’s coalition has been fraying because of growing anger against the endless killing of Pashtoon civilians by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces.

This, and the growing worldwide discrimination against Muslims has fed an insidious resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism that has begun to affect life even in Islamabad. Two firebrand clerics have attracted a number of banned militant organisations to Lal Masjid, a mosque in the capital city. Next to the mosque is the Jamia Hafsa — a self-styled Women’s Islamic University, which is sending burqa-clad brigades to invade children’s libraries, close down brothels and kidnap their inmates and children. Students from the capital’s many madrasas have ransacked dozens of music and video stores and made bonfires of their wares. Pakistan has experienced three suicide bombings in the past three months, two of them in the past two weeks.

Liberals suspect that Musharraf is letting all this happen in Islamabad to justify re-imposing martial law, if the need arises. But it is also likely that he has been weakened by his involvement in the protracted Afghan war to the point where he no longer feels strong enough to tackle fundamentalism head on. Either way, the peace talks are the last thing on his mind now.

This does not necessarily mean that they will have to be put on hold till the elections. But to bring them to fruition, New Delhi will have to take the initiative in a way that it has failed to do so far. It does not have much time left.

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