In hindsight, the Faizabad dharna seems to have been a successful rehearsal and a prelude to the storm that is now being built to derail a lacklustre democratic transition. This is not just to pre-empt the upcoming Senate elections in March, but to pack-up parliament three months before the completion of its tenure in June. What is going on? Perhaps, something much more outrageous is emerging than has been perceived by the powers that be.
The biggest threat that is emerging is the rise of the communalisation of politics – particularly in Punjab – on the one hand, and fragmentation of the political process (aimed at marginalisation of the next parliament) on the other. If the framework for a constitutional transition is disrupted, then the transitional phase and caretaker setup will be at the mercy of judicial arbitration and political engineering by the real arbiters.
Therefore, it seems that what is at stake is more than the manipulation of the constitutional and political mechanisms. Those who sell the conspiracy theory of depriving the PML-N a probable majority in the Senate forget that the difference it would make, in a worst-case scenario, to the ruling party would not be more than five seats. Hence, the game is bigger than this miniscule disadvantage to the PML-N in the upcoming Senate elections. If the Senate election isn’t held as scheduled then it cannot function as the Upper House. With this, the National Assembly also becomes redundant as a legislative body. Is there some thinking going into some kind of a remedial constitutional reform to plug the loopholes exploited to marginalise an elected government or parliament, and to salvage the deposed prime minister?
The first phase of destabilisation – the juridical ouster of an elected prime minister, and his trial – was successfully turned by Nawaz Sharif into a platform of political defiance while playing on rather obvious victimhood. Nawaz Sharif turned his misfortune into an advantage by bringing his own man in the PM Office, with a well-entrenched Shahbaz Sharif in Punjab playing the role of a good cop as an alternative and becoming a rabble-rouser himself. The mass mobilisation and support that Nawaz garnered through his GT Road sojourn brought him greater political dividends than he would have otherwise got by completing his tenure with a mixed bag of incumbency.
In the meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif consolidated his control over his party by amending the prohibitive clause to get re-elected as its president; this he did while isolating his opponents and dissidents within the party perceived to be pro-establishment. A defiant Sharif has so successfully politicised his case that even if he is convicted in the NAB references and imprisoned, he would be much more effective in leading his party in the next elections even from jail.
Now the second phase is in the offing. A humiliating retreat by the federal government before the Faizabad hooligans and a shameful accord with another faction of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) in Lahore could not bring any relief to the PML-N. It has become obvious that playing with Sunni sentiments on the most emotive religious issue of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat is politically lucrative, which is why the other Barelvis could not sit behind idly while seeing the Rizvi faction stealing the limelight. Now, on the occasion of the chehlum of the ‘victims’ of the Faizabad sit-in, two congregations are being planned in Lahore and Rawalpindi on January 4. After the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat public meeting at Faisalabad, various Barelvi factions and shrines’ headmen led by Pir Sialvi are determined to launch a movement for the enforcement of Nizam-e-Mustaffa-II while aiming at the ouster of Shahbaz Sharif’s government in Punjab. This is a vicious game being played by various aspirants for seats in the next elections at the behest of those keen to hoodwink the interim setup.
As if the troubles for the PML-N in Punjab were not enough, the release of the judicial tribunal report on the Model Town imbroglio brought back our dharna maestro Tahirul Qadri into action – yet again. The Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief is being courted by all those who want the ouster of the Shahbaz Sharif government in Punjab. But the twice-bitten Qadri is aiming for a bigger pound of flesh than just playing the role of a spoiler. Qadri is demanding the registration of criminal cases against the chief minister and law minister of Punjab, and is weighing his options for a final assault if he is to be rewarded as a great helmsman. His preferred choice is not fresh elections but a longer caretaker setup that brings him at the centre-stage of electoral engineering. And, here he comes into conflict with two adversarial promoters – Asif Ali Zardari and Imran Khan – who are against postponement of the elections.
The much bigger issue that is being ignored by the political opposition is the communalisation of politics that could potentially push this country into a much larger sectarian conflict. Parallel to the mainstreaming of jihadi outfits from among the Deobandi-Ahle Hadith-Salafi sects, the Barelvis who were left behind and suffered at the hands of terrorism are now finding their resurgence on the basis of the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat issue. The kind of sectarian polemics going on between the leading clerics of the opposite camps of Deobandi/Wahabi/Salafi and Barelvi have the potential to turn into a bloody sectarian conflict between the two hostile sides.
The Deobandi/Salafi/Wahabi /Ahle Hadith militants have been attacking shrines and terming Sufis/Barelvis as poly-theists. On the other hand, the Barelvis and caretakers of shrines, who – as opposed to the early Sufis – do not believe in the ‘unity of existence between the creator and the created’, consider Deobandis and Salafis as blasphemers who do not consider the primacy of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) in reaching out to Allah. Both sides apostatise one another. A single spark or clash or attack can ignite a prairie fire of sectarian warfare among the two larger strands within the Sunnis.
The current political crisis in Pakistan has the potential to degenerate into anarchy and an internecine sectarian conflict. The communalisation of politics will devastate non-religious mainstream political parties and leave little space for democratic discourse and constitutional polity. The state and its institutions as well as mainstream non-religious political parties must consider this communal scenario before they move ahead with the next phase of their petty power games. It’s time to call the bluff of communalists before it all gets out of control of everybody. Let the mainstream parties agree on not in any way flirting with sectarian outfits and let the government and the state end its patronage of religious extremism.
The writer is a senior journalist.