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March 23, 2015

The past is another country


March 23, 2015


Even an hour is a long time in national politics. There is every possibility that by the time this article appears in cold print a few more jaw-dropping events may have happened causing speculation and endless analysis. What is unlikely to change, however, is the way opinion trends are shaping up about the current situation.
These developments are being looked at in two distinct and diametrically opposite ways. One is the cynical interpretation. There is no dearth of opinions that quote recent history to prove that this uproar about the MQM being cleansed, Karachi being liberated and the nexus between crime and politics that some political parties’ heads nurture being broken is a sweet dream.
What you hear goes something like this: We have been down this road before. From 1992 till today the MQM has had such ups and downs. Nothing really changed. Asif Ali Zardari is an exceptional survivor. He just got his party member elected as Senate chairman. To think that the testimonies of a few suspicious individuals (Saulat Mirza, or perhaps in the coming days Uzair Baloch) are going to bring down the house of two of the largest parties of the country is to indulge in self-deception.
The cynical view of the situation is also informed by the debate about the high cost of a new political experiment. MQM legislators have pointed this out in their desperate reaction to a chain of arrests of members of the militant wing. They have tried to portray a bleak political picture in which other parties, including the ruling Pakistan Muslim League would end up bearing the consequences of allowing an ‘operation clean up’ in Karachi. Besides hinting at expanding conflict in the financial hub of the country they have also underlined the complexity of the challenge of terrorism, which, in their view, is really about religious extremism evidenced most recently by the attacks on Lahore churches and in Karachi on a Bohri mosque and the Rangers convoy.
In other words,

cynicism of the sort that says ‘nothing will change’ implies that because the political fallout of any attempt to take on the MQM and the PPP combine is too big, therefore all other political parties would not back this effort by the state beyond a certain point out of the fear that tomorrow they themselves could have their heads on the chopper. It is also implies that the army and the intelligence agencies do not have the capacity to at once deal with external threats, religious fanaticism at home and carry out political manoeuvring, ousting this leader or that.
Opposite to the cynical view is an ambitious and hopeful take on the present situation. Those who believe in this point of view tend to suggest that this time the effort to rid Karachi of chronic violence and to liberate it from criminal capture is serious, determined and far more thorough than before. They point to the systematic nature of the attempt to break down the nexus between vicious crime and political monopoly.
This point of view goes something like this: The laws are in place, the political ownership by the federal government is in abundance, the media is playing ball and most important public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of carrying out a deep surgery of all cancerous growths eating into the vitals of the country, undermining its future. This combination has never existed in the country before.
This view is also supported by empirical evidence based on how events are happening. From the JIT report on Baldia to the capture of the alleged killer of Zehra Shahid, all that has happened in between – the 90 raid, FIR by the Rangers, video release etc – speak of a well-kneaded attempt to tackle long-standing issues. Legal controversies aside, the mounting evidence (and there is more to come) could not have come about if state institutions had not taken the fundamental decision to take this operation to the next level. Also, there is nothing half-hearted about the way the federal government, the GHQ, and the civilian and military intelligence agencies have held their ground on Karachi. This persistence is indicative of the finality of their actions.
This interpretation that this time round radical changes are on the horizon also points to another key difference between the present situation and the past: unlike the past (throughout the nineties for instance) national and provincial politics were caught in the vise of the PPP’s popularity and the MQM’s inescapable organisational efficiency leaving no room for dissent to emerge. There was no alternative available to the people. So when the state tried to manage politics it either did so by pandering to the existing options or by creating synthetic partners (sponsored factions within parties) to achieve its ends. That never worked. It only reinforced the status quo.
But now there is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the second largest political party that has enormous political potential in urban Sindh as well. So the fear is unfounded that there will be political vacuum and enhanced violence on account of the unravelling of the older political structures. The PTI is the safety net to absorb whatever effects a revolutionary overhaul of the rotten system might create.
What has encouraged this line of thought is the tamping down of emotions in the Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif camps. The two sides have agreed on the formation of a judicial commission. Through this understanding they have also paved the way for sober, cleaner and more purposeful politics in the future. If this agreement is backed by other political stakeholders, the scope for mafia politics may then be reduced to insignificance.
Now the key question. Which of the two interpretations – Nothing-Will-Happen or Big-Things-Will-Happen – shall prevail? Forecasting is hazardous business in Pakistan. There may also be evidence of events moving in a particular direction, there is very little information available from the ‘echelons of power’ – to use a cliché. If there is a script on purging politics of crime and enhancing the field of normal political activity, its details are a closely-guarded secret. The three in the know of it happen to be the prime minister, the chief of army staff, and the director general of the ISI and they are not going to come out and speak on it to anyone in any significant detail. However, a few things are obvious.
Pakistan has been a veritable laboratory of political re-engineering. There isn’t an experiment that the nation has not witnessed. From rigged elections to manufactured leaders to outright military take-overs to behind the scene string-pulling, you name it and our history has it. Therefore, the cynicism whether this effort, regardless of its intent, is any different from the previous ones is justified. It was not long ago that the devils the state is chasing now were its partners and best friends. What is the guarantee that under the compulsion of circumstances old bonds will not come into play again? Obviously, there is no guarantee.
At the same time, hard-core facts cannot be ignored. Nor can their importance be de-emphasised. There is a clear breach in the decade-old relations between MQM-Altaf and the Pakistani establishment. There is mounting evidence of criminal activity being supervised by party leaders, whether it is money laundering, raising private armies or land-grabbing and smuggling. There is a new political force, the PTI, that has come into play and, despite the many deficiencies of its leadership, it is popular and mainstream. There are mutual interests between the army and the ruling party in keeping the country steady and calm.
So in way if there was a time to take, implement, and persist with hard decisions it is now. That alone makes the events of the recent weeks exceptional and incomparable with similar episodes in the past.
While the country is not going to change overnight – no country does – if political ground is levelled through enforcement of law leading to improved governance we could well be on course to some peace, some prosperity, and, yes, a bit of sanity.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @TalatHussain12




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