Pakistan in a maelstrom?
The Ides of March have been linked with deep political intrigue and pre-meditated violence and history notes that Caesar paid a very heavy price for not paying heed to the sage advice rendered unto him.
Pakistan is no Rome but the pattern of recent events that include the ‘conquest’ of the Swat valley by the Taliban, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore and the blowing up of the shrine of the Sufi-saint Rehman Baba at the foothills of the Khyber Pass by Sunni extremists are cumulatively indicative of a socio-religious tsunami whose tectonic implications go well beyond the political contours of Pakistan.
Concurrently the country is poised on the cusp of an irreparable breakdown between the two major political parties – the PML(N) led by former PM Nawaz Sharif, and the PPP led by the Pakistan President, Asif Ali Zardari.
This tragic paradox is heightened by the reality that while the disparate extremist groups that are broadly classified as the Pakistan Taliban are uniting under a common banner and leader – the political forces that can counter such ideology are splintering.
But then historically Pakistan has been plagued by myriad domestic contradictions and paradoxes and long-time Pakistani watchers see the current turbulence with a sense of déjà vu.
From the first military take over of Pakistan by General Ayub Khan in October 1958 to the more recent coup by General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999, the khaki constituency has always been the central element of power in the national matrix.
Even when civilian leaders have been elected – their authority has been notional. The real power centre remains the Pakistan Army and its Chief who represents the multi-dimensional corporate interests of the ‘fauj’ as an institution.
The military are the guardians of the national interest, which they define and then proceed to protect – even if it means cynically exploiting religion – as General Zia-ul-Haq had skilfully demonstrated.
The current political impasse wherein Nawaz Sharif has threatened to go on a ‘long march’ culminating in Islamabad on March 16 is a challenge to the legitimacy of the Zardari regime.
The huge crowds that attended the PML(N) rallies in Lahore and Abbotabad over the last few days are case in point. The Supreme Court decision against the Sharif brothers and the imposition of Governor’s rule in the province of Punjab has resulted in Sharif exhorting government officials not to obey illegal orders, thereby inviting charges of sedition – and the possibility of life imprisonment.
In this turbulent and contested domain where rumour is rife, there is talk of the khakis coming back – ‘reluctantly’ – as they did in 1958 and all eyes are on General Pervez Kayani, the COAS. The possibility that General Musharraf will make a comeback as an acceptable President is yet another strand.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani remains the dark horse in the melee.
The Ides of March have always been preceded by intense speculation on the street.
On the eve of his departure to Tehran (March 10), President Zardari observed: “Our focus on fighting extremism and terrorism remains strong and cannot be diluted. The people of Pakistan have made tremendous sacrifices in this fight and are determined to see the return of peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”
A day later, his very articulate and persuasive information minister, Sherry Rehman is denying reports that President Zardari has been advised to stay back in Dubai – for his personal safety.
Public opinion has not forgotten the dastardly assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. The same Taliban constituency with its anti-women virulence was behind the violent end of Bhutto. Her widower is caught in a maelstrom that is fraught with many disturbing possibilities.
The Ides of March will soon be upon Pakistan and both the ideology of Islam and the relentless pursuit of political power will be cynically contested.