Feb 21, 2011

The right-wing juggernaut

The media and religious parties deflect attention from the issues that really matter so as to maintain their monopoly over ‘public opinion’

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

If this were not Pakistan one might be surprised at the overnight transformation of Shah Mahmood Qureishi from a dithering foreign minister into a heroic son-of-the-soil who will proudly defend his country till his dying breath. But in this day and age it is impossible to even feign surprise at the media’s epic about-turns — I almost find myself waiting for the next outrageous turn of events.

This is not to take anything away from the ex-foreign minister who did all he could to be put on the media pedestal. Qureishi has a penchant for drama at the best of times, and he has milked this particular occasion for all it is worth. Just exactly why his ‘conscience’ decided to bare itself at the present time is a matter of conjecture; in any case, the alliance of the Pir from Multan and our rambunctious TV media has dramatically raised the stakes in the ongoing Raymond Davis affair.

On the one hand President Zardari is right in suggesting that this is a complex matter and needs to be dealt with accordingly. The reactionary forces within the media and our ever willing religious parties are depicting this as nothing more than an American stooge government pandering to its patrons’ every demand. They conveniently neglect to mention the fact that our army — the real fountainhead of power in this country — continues to stock up on American dollars and weaponry whilst playing the dubious game called ‘strategic depth’, which also happens to be the most immediate cause of social fragmentation. The right still thrives on a warped narrative in which Pakistan is a bastion of Islam that is in perpetual danger from a nexus of Hindu-Jewish conspirators. Perhaps most importantly, the media and religious parties deflect attention from the issues that really matter so as to maintain their monopoly over ‘public opinion’.

On the other hand, however, Zardari knows as well as any other seasoned political player that Washington does exercise inordinate influence over Pakistan. This has been the case since 1954; the military regimes of Ayub, Zia and Musharraf capitulated in the face of American pressure more than any elected government could dare to do. Zardari also knows that General Headquarters (GHQ) is the real seat of power in Pakistan, and that it was behind the media frenzy drummed up in the wake of the Kerry-Lugar bill just as it is backing the right-wing juggernaut at this particular juncture.

But the imperatives of power politics preclude Zardari announcing to the world that he is caught between the American rock and the Pakistani military hard place. For more than three years Zardari has managed to keep himself in the presidency and his party in government by gambling on the balance of power between GHQ and Washington. It is a dangerous game, and one that he continues to play. Time will tell whether or not he can avert outright contradiction over Raymond Davis.

Too often those who think and write about power politics in Pakistan — myself included — neglect to dwell upon China’s evolving role. It is a well-known fact that Ayub Khan turned to China to increase his bargaining power with Washington in the early 1960s, and that, since that time, Beijing has had a significant bearing on the power calculus within Pakistan.

In recent times, China has undertaken numerous initiatives that demand serious attention. First, a significant amount of Chinese capital — both financial and human — has been invested in Pakistan over the past 10-15 years. Most mega development projects, including those in Balochistan, involve considerable technical and monetary input from China. One of the fastest expanding mobile phone network in the country is owned by China Mobile (only Arab companies have put as much money into Pakistan’s telecommunications industry as the Chinese). China’s cheap consumer durables continue to flood Pakistan’s markets. Put in a nutshell, China is a big-time player in Pakistan’s economy, and its influence will only grow in years to come

Second (and this should already have caused many raised eyebrows), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has over the past couple of years built up a close relationship with the Jamaa’t-e-Islami (JI). Big JI delegations have visited China on at least two occasions on the invitation of the CCP, and these visits have been reciprocated by CCP leaders spending time in Mansoora. Now in case anyone does not follow the irony here, the JI was at the forefront of anti-communist campaigns in Pakistan for five decades. Even today, Pakistan’s long-suffering left is consistently targeted by the JI (and other religious parties) for its alleged lack of faith.

While Washington’s consistent patronage of the military establishment far exceeds Beijing’s, there should be no doubt that the Chinese have cultivated long-term relationships with the top brass of the Pakistani military and that the latter continues to think of China as an important bargaining chip in its relationship with the United States. It is also important to consider the wider geo-strategic environment: India is now one of Washington’s blue-eyed boys while its traditional rivalry with China is very much intact. In short, China is a major actor in regional politics and no understanding of the domestic-international dialectic can be complete without reference to Beijing and its long-term strategic interventions in Pakistan. In this regard, the budding friendship between the JI and the CCP is surely not just a happy example of the ‘irrelevance of ideology’ in the Post-Cold war world.

If and when Raymond Davis does eventually return to the US, and regardless of what happens in the interim, Pakistan will still remain a bulwark of American strategy in the wider region, the Pakistani military will continue to take American dollars while talking itself up as the guardian of sovereignty, and the right-wing juggernaut will continue to heap pressure on the weak elected government. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has generally shown itself to be weak and opportunistic whereas the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has only little more to show for three years in government. Yet it is still there, and until and unless we can muster up the necessary ingredients for a revolutionary rupture in the prevailing structure of power, ensuring the sanctity of the political process is the best we can manage. If this process is disrupted, the reactionary triumvirate of imperialism, the military establishment and the religious right will only grow stronger.

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