Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Deal (And The U.S.)

There was an interesting article in yesterday's Dawn by Zaffar Abbas. Abbas' central hypothesis was that the U.S. is playing a dangerous game by trying to bring the PPP and Musharraf closer to a power-sharing deal, and that such involvement in Pakistani politics is likely to backfire and be counter-productive in the fight against religious extremism. Here's some of what he wrote:
Most people were already convinced that it was Washington that had been pushing this thesis of a moderate-extremist divide in the country. Now with some of the official statements in Washington, and their more detailed explanation in the New York Times, has left little doubt about the level of their involvement in the matter.

This may certainly be embarrassing for the two Pakistani leaders. But more important, it is going to provide more ammunition to the Islamic parties and other anti-American groups to question the legitimacy of any future alliance of moderate forces in the country.

Perhaps what the so-called South Asia experts in Washington have not been able to figure out is that there is much more to Pakistani politics than the increasing gulf between what are perceived as ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ forces.


The problem emanates from the assumption that in the current political situation in Pakistan, the only fault line is between the so-called ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. Those following developments in Pakistan know well that Pakistani society is divided in several different ways. Some of the fault lines of Pakistan politics are between the haves and the have-nots, or between supporters of democracy and military dictatorship, between progressive- minded social democrats and religious democrats.

And there is a clear difference between the religious groups like Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), or for that matter the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), which believe in and support democracy, and the Islamic extremists who, like their Taliban brethren from Afghanistan, regard democracy to be a concept alien to Islam.

So by playing this dangerous game, the Americans just might be pushing everyone from Nawaz Sharif to Imran Khan, and some small Baloch nationalist groups, towards the religious political parties, and a host of other big and small pressure groups, into one big anti-American camp.

A few thoughts immediately jump out at me. First, no one is assuming that there is just one fault line in Pakistani politics. It is trivially true that in a country of 160 million people, with various ethnicties, differing socio-economic status and asymmetric power relationships, there will be myriad fissures dividing the society and the polity. "Moderate" vs "Extremist" is of course just one of these. The question to ask, however, is which is the most fundamental one? In other words, around what issue, or set of issues, is the political agenda of the day being set? There is very little doubt that the "Moderate" vs "Extremist" issue is of prime importance, especially after Lal Masjid. The Americans aren't acting under the assumption that the moderate/extremist divide is the only one in Pakistan today. They are acting under the assumption that the moderate/extremist divide is the most important one in Pakistan today. And they are right.

Second, Abbas says that "moderate" forces in Pakistani politics who hold the U.S. anathema will be forced to join the anti-American camp because they don't want to be - and don't want to be seen to be - pro-American. This assertion is born out of the misplaced notion of what constitutes "moderate". To Abbas, Imran Khan and the PML-N are "moderate". To me, they well right of center. If what Abbas says is true, and these parties are moderate but also anti-American, then we should see evidence of them voicing moderate opinions when it comes to issues that don't concern the U.S. and voicing extremist or quasi-extremist ones when it comes to those that do. Unfortunately, we have seen time and again these so-called moderate forces fail to step up for moderation. On the Women's Rights Bill late last year - covered extensively here on Rs. 5 - none of these "moderate" forces showed an iota of support. What about Lal Masjid? The leadership of these moderate parties had little condemnation for the goals, if not the methods, of the nutjobs perpetrating that lovely little operation. What about the secularism and the role of Islam in the country? These issues have little to do with foreign policy or Pakistan's relationship with the U.S. You can still be moderate on them and be anti-American. And yet, we have never seen statements in the press or substantive action that can convince us that Imran Khan and the PML-N actually support anything moderate in this country. What does this mean for Abbas' thesis? Well, it means that no one, least of all the U.S., Musharraf or Benazir, is pushing these parties into the hands of the extremists. Ideologically, they are already there, completely of their own volition.

For the record, and in the interests of full disclosure, my thoughts on the deal, Musharraf and BB are thus:

1. A slow and gradual transition to full democracy is more likely to be permanent than a rapid one. It is worth debating (but not now or here) what "slow and gradual" means.

2. The PPP is the only national party, along with I suppose the MQM, that is secular and progressive for its own sake, and not just for political expediency (unlike the Q-League, which isn't even a goddamn party).

3. The best antidote to corruption in power - a concern many people have when it comes to BB - is a relatively free press and a relatively independent judiciary. I think it is safe to say the last three months have shown Pakistan has both.

4. The most likely arbiter of intra-Pakistan politics, specifically Center-Province issues, is a national party with a foothold in each province. There is only one party in Pakistan that fits that bill, and it is the PPP.

5. The deal must ensure Musharraf taking off his uniform by the end of the year. We cannot have a military man as President for five more years. Enough is enough.

6. Elections cannot be rigged. Luckily for Musharraf, the PPP is easily the most popular party in Pakistan, recent surveys notwithstanding, and so he won't have to. In the rigged elections of 2002, they managed 30% of the vote. How much could they get in a truly free and fair election? 35%? 40%?

7. For the viability of democracy in Pakistan, parliamentary elections should precede, not succeed, a power-sharing deal. This is, of course, a pipe dream. But this is my blog, and I'll pipe dream if I want to.

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