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Another December in Pakistan: A legacy of accumulated history

This December is however also witnessing an intense contest between a weakened government and what appears to be the rest of Pakistan’s political spectrum. Is this the normal raised level of static as the country enters the last lap before the general election? Or is the next act of the so called ‘creeping coup’?

opinion Updated: Dec 23, 2017 08:30 IST
Pakistan,India Pakistan,Barelvi
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, listens to his brother Shahbaz Sharif during a party meeting in Lahore in October (AP)

Amidst more intense US pressures than seen in the past decade and a half, Pakistan faces an uncertain environment. An energised Saudi monarchy is calling in IOUs to consolidate a concert against Iran. The plateau in relations with India and Afghanistan also continues. And finally, some very nascent signs have appeared that even the most rock solid of Pakistan’s external relationships – with China – cannot fully insulate itself from its domestic flux.

But for all this, Pakistan’s issues remain domestic and more than any other time December is usually the month for introspection. This year too it is no different. December after all is that month when the dream of an exclusive Muslim homeland in South Asia was shattered in Dacca in 1971. From being the defender of the realm, the Pakistan army in East Pakistan through 1971 became the demolisher of an idea. Embedded in its profile since has been an element of public doubt that wanes and rises depending on Pakistan’s circumstances. Doubts were also sown, and almost simultaneously, that very December about the country’s most potent civilian force since the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the assassination of Liaqat Ali Khan — the Pakistan’s Peoples Party. Its 50th anniversary also falls this month and this has provided the spur to many to reflect on its underutilised potential and on the gap between the dreams of its cadres and the reality of its politics. Unfulfilled dreams are evoked even more poignantly by another anniversary later this month — the tenth since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. In her life and even more in her death she epitomised all of Pakistan’s contradictions: the first women to head a government in a Muslim majority country, gunned down by terrorists representing the so-called rage of Islam against almost everything. The question marks of who actually felled her in Rawalpindi on December 27 also underline that opacity and enigmatic quality surrounding most major events in Pakistan’s history.

If December 16 marks the breakup of Pakistan, also on that day took place Pakistan’s most horrific attack when over a hundred children were gunned down in their school in Peshawar in 2014. This one single act embodied two of Pakistan’s current trajectories — its intense but ultimately halfhearted battle against extremism and its confusion on whether militants and terrorists are liabilities or assets and allies. All this ties up inevitably with Pakistan’s flawed India and Afghanistan policies.

This is the accumulated legacy of history. This December is however also witnessing an intense contest between a weakened government and what appears to be the rest of Pakistan’s political spectrum. Is this the normal raised level of static as the country enters the last lap before the general election? Or is the next act of the so called ‘creeping coup’ that unseated Nawaz Sharif being played out and behind which stands the brooding presence of the Pakistan army?

Pakistan oscillates between these two narratives as speculation mounts around the longevity of the government. If it completes its term then the new Senate members will reflect for the next few years the existing strength of the Pakistan Muslim League in the National Assembly. In that case Nawaz Sharif’s political clout will continue to some extent at least regardless of what happens in the general elections. The Senate elections are scheduled for March and in some analysis the aim is to dislodge the present government before that. If that indeed does happen Pakistan would have missed another milestone. Nawaz Sharif’s premature ouster meant that the achievement for the first time in Pakistan’s history of having a prime minister complete full term could not be attained. The past two governments – Musharraf’s civilian veneer and the Zardari led PPP government (each with three prime ministers) – had nevertheless completed their full terms. This government’s premature exit – howsoever unmourned it may be – would mean that even elementary continuity is now difficult to sustain.

This disarray of the mainstream political system opens up new possibilities for Pakistan’s Islamists. Those with established political parties see opportunities with the weakening of the Peoples Party and the Muslim League in Punjab. Their history so far is of being important at the national level as swing players and their frequent utility to the military has been just that- not identified with any of the major parties but with the capacity to influence events in a ‘hung’ situation. But the weakening of the mainstream parties is also accompanied by a mainstreaming of extremists such as those in the Jamaat ut Dawa led by Hafiz Sayeed. To make matters worse, from time to time, prominent politicians speak of these extremists as patriots and as being ready fo defend Pakistan, especially when it comes of Kashmir. This is a dangerous trend as this seems to suggest that the terrorist who is useful should be nurtured, even mainstreamed. More significant is the mobilisation by disparate Barelvi groups, sensing the confusion in the political system and driven by a past history of real and imagined neglect by the military and the political class.

TCA Raghavan is a former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan and Singapore

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 22, 2017 18:49 IST