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Pakistan: Return of the ‘Padri’

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By Humayun Gauhar

Time to descend to earth. Time to pause from delving into heaven after death to hell before death. Things had become stagnant. Now there is a new kerfuffle – the Return of the ‘Padri’ and another long march that threatens to bring Islamabad to a standstill yet again.

I had been predicting it for months: a visitation by the latest pretender to the messiah mantle, to wit one Tahir ul Qadri, doctor of philosophy and a scholar of theocracy who speaks many languages and whom the wags have taken to calling Tahir ul ‘Padri’ – as in ‘Padre’. He claims to having been visited by the holy Prophet (pbuh) who was so unhappy with Pakistan that he threatened to leave and never return. Qadri begged and pleaded with him but I don’t remember whether the Prophet (pbuh) relented. People cry when they hear this story and regard Qadri as the anointed one. So once again the illusion of change in the air is upon us. Once again there is no gainsaying that it too won’t turn out to be another mirage.

People flocked to Qadri’s rallies in droves. Not all could have been hired or rounded up. No surprise with a people who have dynasts and messiahs in their bones, for that is all they know, perpetually in search of a monarch and at the same time a messiah to deliver them from the dynast’s tyranny.

We first knew Qadri as head of – wait for it – PAT, acronym for Pakistan Awami Tehreek. Then he went to Canada and got citizenship. For years he honed his political philosophy. Now he’s back with a new set of demands: change the constitution, change the system, end feudalism, reform before elections, blah, blah and more blah, things we have heard many times before but never seen come to fruition.

On the face of it none could disagree with Qadri. We all want reforms towards a truly democratic and egalitarian society. But talk comes cheap; action is difficult. Qadri hasn’t told us how he is going do it: we know his strategy – what to do – but not his tactics – how to do it – except for the inevitable ‘long march’ (Poor Mao. When O’ when will they have an original thought?).

What could Qadri’s real objective be? If you cut through the jungle of his rhetoric it becomes obvious: to delay elections that are nigh – ‘reforms before elections’ gives it away. Elections can be delayed for a year constitutionally, but how reforms can take place constitutionally defeats me. Why should the disease willingly provide the cure and kill itself? Why would our parliamentarians bring reforms that end their over lordship?

Conventional wisdom has it that Qadri has America’s backing. Proof? Where is Qadri’s money coming from? Fair question. It’s more than his supporters could muster or the ISI provide.

Why would America want the present government to continue a while longer? Because they have been brought to the realization that without Pakistan it would be impossible to exit Afghanistan safely and honourably. Pakistan’s support is vital to getting hundreds of thousands of troops and some $35 billion worth of heavy armaments, equipment and materials out, which can only be done via Pakistan’s land route through Port Karachi. They might never find more pliant and obedient satraps as they have now. They can’t risk what new elections might bring. Even the return of the same satraps won’t guarantee continued compliance for their power might be limited. There is no guarantee that an interim pre-election government with a long extension will be able to deliver without electoral ‘legitimacy’ and a mandate. They certainly don’t want Nawaz Sharif whom they regard as unreliable and unpredictable. So the best option is to continue with the present set up.

Indian writer Bhadrakumar agrees in ‘India’s Afghan Moment’: America’s ‘dalliance’ with India is over and Pakistan is back in the ‘core group’ of three with America and Afghanistan and an ‘outer ring’ of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. An end to America’s Afghan War is not only good for Pakistan, America and Afghanistan but also for the rest of the world. We should help them for our own sake.

The People’s Party’s and the Nawaz Sharif’s opposition’s minds are preoccupied by Qadri’s impending long march to Islamabad on January 14. If it materializes it will bring the capital and thus the state to a standstill. It could eventually also bring Pakistan to flashpoint. If there is violence there will be chaos and eventually anarchy. The army will have to step in. Some people think this is precisely Qadri’s purpose: to create justification for a coup, overt or covert. MQM supporting him lends credence to this theory for its leader Altaf Hussain has repeatedly asked the army to join the people for once to bring reform and end feudalism. I don’t think so.

The army knows that Pakistan is already in so much turmoil that they will not be able to control it. The army statement that now internal security is its main concern fortifies the coup theorists but they forget that the war within is worse than the danger without.

However, things could go so out of control that a coup becomes inevitable. The earlier ones couldn’t deliver because while it is relatively easy to do a coup it is very difficult to know what to do the day after. Without a plan of precisely what to do, another coup would be a disaster. Remember an uncontrollable Pakistan suits no one. Its falling apart suits them even less, especially India, whose own centrifugal forces would accelerate and the Taliban come to its borders and soon inside it. Who wants such a powerful country with a huge armed forces laced with a nuclear arsenal in chaos? Old countries like Egypt can withstand the turmoil that it is going through and still remain intact. What about a new, fragile state brimming with contradictions and problems?

How to counter Qadri? I had predicted Zardari and Sharif ganging up again, this time in an electoral alliance of convenience driven by self-survival. That has nearly come to pass. The alliance will be so huge that it will take the wind out of Qadri’s sails. It might even suit America and our establishment: Zardari the senior partner, Sharif the junior, PPP prime minister, PML-N deputy prime minister. Let’s see. As President Lyndon Johnson said, America might think of Sharif that it is better to “have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” With the MQM, ANP, JUI, FATA and PML-Q – perhaps Qadri too – rushing into the tent as well, it is the closest thing we will have to a National Government. No bad thing at this juncture.

I say what I have been saying for years: let our evolutionary process continue to its natural conclusion. If that conclusion is self-correction, good, but if it is demise all the better. Best it dies naturally than becomes a martyr to rise again as a zombie as it has done. Something better will emerge from its ashes. The people will have learned and will not make the same mistakes again – hopefully. Some people never learn and remain mired in the past, stuck forever in decadence, degradation and poverty. There is no system that can correct them. This is how nations die.

You might think that I am being perverse, but I am happy because things are going in the right direction. I thought it would take longer, but it has taken only one full term of elected governments to expose the system as unworkable. An increasing number of people are seeing that this system isn’t for working. Best to let it go to its natural death and hope that a brave new world emerges naturally from its ashes.

Once again Pakistan stands at a crossroads. Take the path less trodden upon and go to fortune. Or take the path most trodden upon and go to more misfortune. Let us see what lies in store but never underestimate the collective stupidity of our ruling classes.

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