Mar 6, 2009

Pakistan seeks a way out

By Kuldip Nayar
Neither decades of military rule nor obsequious politicians have disheartened the nation. It has faced a long ordeal with very little respite. Still the people’s eyes remain fixed on a democratic setup which will give them not only political stability but also economic viability.
I have visited Pakistan at least 150 times. I have always come back with optimism. This has lessened a bit after my return last week. Pakistan is, indeed, a distressed state. It is not the lack of political unity or the increasing Talibanisation which bothers me. It is the absence of ethos which often makes Pakistan lose its way.
I was leading a goodwill delegation to see if civil society on both sides could rekindle the fire of amity from the embers left in the heap of the burnt India-Pakistan relationship. I have never heard so many voices of peace before. Friendship with India is on the agenda of every political party, including the Jamaat-i-Islami. Yet the two countries are far from holding talks. In fact, there is no such prospect until Mumbai is out of the way and a new government in the saddle in June or July.
Our trip, played up by the media, was able to generate some confidence among the people of Pakistan that India, however angry over the terrorist attack on Mumbai, too felt that there was no option other than peace with Pakistan. People wanted the perpetrators to be brought to justice quickly and we were told that the government was working hard to get to the bottom of the attack.
On the last lap of the trip, domestic political upheaval crowded us out from the media and the government’s attention. Only two days before that did we have a long talk with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif whom the Supreme Court had disqualified from electoral politics. He had no inkling of it, not even 24 hours before the judgment when I met him again. He talked about President Asif Ali Zardari ‘going back on the promises he made’ but that he did not think of parting ways altogether.
‘The repercussions are too serious,’ he said. In my presence, he received a telephone call from his brother Shahbaz Sharif who said that his meeting with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was ‘positive’.
Therefore, I was surprised over the dismissal of the Shahbaz government and the disqualification of the two brothers. The military and politicians have battered the institutions in Pakistan so much that anything emanating from them evokes little credibility. In fact, the reaction is quite the opposite.
What amazes me is the cursory manner in which President Zardari treats his political opponents and that too at a time when the situation in Pakistan demands national unity. There was no last-minute effort to talk to Nawaz Sharif who complained repeatedly that he was never consulted on the probe into the Mumbai happenings. ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan could have been of help to Zardari. The Punjab Assembly should have been convened to see if any other person was in a position to muster a majority to form the government.
The overactive Punjab governor was in a hurry to have his rule. I doubt if the Punjab Assembly can weather the storm. This may develop into an issue whose fallout could affect the federal structure of Pakistan.
The biggest gainer is the military. Many predict that it may come back if Washington agrees. Only 10 months ago, it was hated. Now the military is seen as a protector. That the military is relevant — the American dignitaries call on the chief of army staff Gen Parvez Kayani when they visit Islamabad — is a sad commentary on political leaders who could not stay together even for one year. The situation can be retrieved if the ruling PPP takes the initiative. One can discern an effort within the party to mend fences with the PML-N.
With a half-hearted defence along the western border of Pakistan, the army gives the impression as if its heart is not in the fight against the Taliban. Asfandyar Wali did not want to comment on this point when I asked him. But he did admit that there was no alternative to peace with the Taliban in Malakand Division. He argued that the introduction of the Sharia in certain districts of the NWFP did not suggest the triumph of the Taliban.
However, this view is not shared either by Pakistani civil society or the media. They fear the Talibanisation of Pakistan within a decade or so if nothing was done to counter it politically, economically and militarily. Many warned me that the Taliban would not stop at even Islamabad but go right up to the Wagah-Amritsar border for which India should be prepared.
The terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers at Lahore suggests that. If the Mumbai attack was aimed at India, the Lahore incident points to the steady inroads terrorist organisations have made into the heartland of Pakistan. That New Delhi should join hands with Islamabad to fight terrorism makes sense. Yet, there has to be quicker action against the Mumbai perpetrators if India is to be brought on board.
People admit to the presence of jihadi elements both in the military and the government. But they argue that such elements will get sustenance if New Delhi does not give visa to artists, academicians and others of their ilk. There is no ban on the screening of Indian films either at cinema theatres or showing it on television. Information Minister Sherry Rehman said she did not know how long this would continue if relations between India and Pakistan did not improve. Sherry Rehman deserves praise. But it does not solve the problem between the two countries. Dismantling terrorist camps in Pakistan may. She should aim for that.

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