Has Pakistan finally set sail towards a bright future? Some recent trends have shown more acceptance for liberal policies and leftist politics, coupled with an increasing pressure on the extremist narrative and rightist politics, in a society otherwise labelled as conservative. Competition for political dominance amongst five forces has given rise to this rather progressive equilibrium.
First and foremost is the PML-N, which, under the absolute control of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is gradually liberalising Pakistan. The havoc let loose by terrorism, economic stagnation because of the resultant mayhem, Chinese pressure for improved law and order, a changed international mood against extremist policies and his personal priority of economic development of country could be some of the reasons that Nawaz Sharif has openly declared Pakistan to be a liberal and democratic state. And some concrete actions have spoken louder than his words.
The second important player is the military, which traditionally has been a liberal and progressive institution, except for the digression of the eighties that cost the institution very dearly, especially in terms of internal indiscipline. Several attempts to take over the institution by some overzealous, extremist officers have been reported since then. Under General Raheel Sharif, the military has undergone a thorough course correction and has set its priorities right.
Although it is an important player, the military’s interference in politics appears to be at its lowest in the current scenario. The Pervez Musharraf saga, even though it consisted of many unpleasant events, is a bygone affair and now the military is completely focused on Balochistan, Karachi and Punjab. All these operations are constitutionally mandated. Operations against the corruption of politicians are subsiding now, thankfully, because they were beyond the mandate of the military, as the constitution and law has mandated the judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau to take action against the corruption of politicians. In Karachi, criminal gangs have already been brought under control.
In Balochistan, the recent arrest of a high-ranking Indian spy has given credence to Pakistan’s complaints that India is fanning separatist sentiments in Balochistan. The timing of the arrest of the Indian spy, who reportedly used Iran as his base, is also very important, as it coincided with the high-profile visit of Iranian President. Was it really a coincidence? Or did Pakistan want to highlight India’s use of Iranian territory? How far the busting of the RAW network will go in restoring peace in Balochistan remains to be seen.
Punjab has remained a hotbed of terrorists for quite some time and the PML-N government has allegedly been opposing any operation for political reasons. Now that the PMLN has apparently decided to sacrifice the far-right vote, the military is all set to cleanse the proverbial Augean Stables of Punjab. And it can be hoped that it will not take the military long to neutralise the terrorists’ infrastructure and sleeper cells in Punjab, given the successes that it has already recorded in Operation Zarb-e-Azab.
The third power – the PPP – is undergoing a transition, as Bilawal Zardari has considerably strengthened his control on the party. Moreover, his manoeuvring to return the PPP to its leftist origins have earned him the attention of the liberal and secular forces. His emphasis on the rights of minorities, bold stance against extremism, signals of less tolerance towards corruption and use of social media have contributed to improving the credibility and relevance of the PPP.
The return of a party with a liberal and secular agenda to the national mainstream is necessary for Pakistan’s survival; but to restore the PPP to its erstwhile stature, Bilawal needs to overcome many challenges. The first and foremost is the stains of corruption on the party, some of which can be traced back to his own family. The second is to cleanse the first and second tier of the leadership of corrupt and incompetent people.
Imran Khan’s PTI is the fourth player, which is becoming irrelevant to Pakistan’s politics with the same alacrity with which it rose to prominence. In the absence of any political substance, Imran Khan is trying to remain relevant through pointless criticism and excessive media exposure. While the PML-N is changing its direction towards liberalism, Imran Khan – despite having a liberal and secular disposition personally – has thrown the PTI towards the far-right of the political divide. His establishment-related credentials that he successfully kept away from public eyes for years have already been exposed during ill-fated dharnas. Now, the absconding of Pervez Musharraf, which was described by some as the ultimate aim of the dharnas, has further eroded his political stature. Poor performance on corruption, accountability and transparency in KP can lead to a nightmarish future for the party, especially if the PPP, under Bilawal Zardari, makes a comeback in Punjab. Imran Khan must remember that it was due to the political space left open by the internal crisis of the PPP after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto that he was able to make headway in politics.
The same is the case with religious parties – the fifth player in our politics. Owing to their narrow and extremist outlook, they have never been able to carve out a sizeable electorate among the public. Their approach of justifying terrorism has deprived them of their only support – the establishment. The JUI-F still has the ability to win some seats from some Pashtun areas, but the JI is facing a more serious crisis. Its anti-corruption drive has proved to be a non-starter. Political millage from the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri was denied to the JI by the Barelvis, who successfully claimed exclusive rights over the episode. The only initiative that recorded some success, to the extent of bringing all the religious parties to one table, was the protection of women law. But without an unseen hand at work, which is less likely in the current circumstances, this initiative too will remain futile.
Pakistan, while adopting a liberal agenda, is heading towards a second peaceful civilian transfer of power. If it succeeds in its progressive mission, the future may bring many benefits to the millions of impoverished and poverty-stricken Pakistanis.
The writer is a former diplomat and currently practices law.
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