2013: A highly critical year for Pakistan – by A Z

elections 2013This year promises to be of great significance for Pakistan in more respects than one. A change of government is already in the making. Kayani makes way for a successor to be appointed. The US and NATO begin to scale down their presence in Afghanistan, which is likely to have important ramifications for Pakistan. These are huge changes for a country that is under siege by terrorism and has been in the midst of a painful crisis for the past several years. Since 2001, over 45,000 Pakistanis have died in terrorism related violence, including about 7,000 people from the country’s law enforcement agencies. There have been about 350 suicide bombings during the same period. Many of the US and other world intelligence agencies rate Pakistan among countries most likely to fail.

Pakistan is also widely viewed as a sponsor of terror and centre of global jihadists. Many of the world’s most wanted radicals live in Pakistan. The alleged architect of the Mumbai attacks, Hafiz Saeed, roams around freely in the country, issues frequent calls for Jihad against India and Israel, and is deemed close to the military and many big mainstream political leaders alike. Mullah Omar is also commonly believed to be in Pakistan, shuttling between Quetta and Karachi. The Head of Al Qaeda Ayman Zawahiri is also stated to be in Pakistan. Taliban hold control over large swathes of the country. Karachi is in turmoil and the country’s largest province Baluchistan is almost ungovernable. The economy too is in dire straits.

However, 2013 is a year of great significance in that it is set to record some major positives for the country. The election season is progressing well and to the satisfaction of almost all except the democracy’s naysayers. For once, conspiracy theories are in short supply and the usual schemers seem to have no alternative but to bide their time. These elections promise to be entirely fair and present a more diverse choice of candidates and parties than any elections post-1970. Imran presents a potent third option for the very first time. Baloch nationals will also contest the elections. The spectre of terrorism and disruption by Taliban looms large. Chief Election Commissioner, the caretaker PM, and the Supreme Court all inspire hope and confidence for a totally fair and impartial electoral process. May they prove equal to the task.

Later this year, Zardari will have served five years, becoming the first elected civilian leader to complete a full term in office and pass power to another elected government. It will be a major milestone for Pakistani democracy. He has served years in prison and lost his wife to the terrorists who besiege the nation. He has often been called a criminal by many, including his own family, and the national symbol of corruption. While he presided over a Shia Genocide and an unmitigated persecution of minorities during his tenure, he was able to engineer a major re transfer of power from the President to the Prime Minister and is set to leave the country far more democratic than he inherited it.

Pakistan does not need any miracles, it just needs normalcy and basic good governance. The pathetic situation we are in is reflected in Imran Khan’s pledge to people during his public meeting in Lahore. He said things like he promises to not to lie to people, to pay his taxes, will not indulge in nepotism, will not practice corruption etc. In any normal country these qualities would be taken for granted as minimum qualification for any public office but here perhaps the most individually popular political leader of the country is applauded as an emblem of honesty for simply being credible in sounding these vows.

Personally I have had a fondness for Imran Khan since my boyhood days. It stemmed from Imran’s charisma as a person backed by his excellence on a cricket field and remains intact by dint of his great philanthropic work, courage, honesty, and sincerity. However, my strong liking for his person has never distilled into support for his politics as our political ideologies are quite different. Having said that, I do feel that Imran presents the least bad option in the forthcoming elections as he is capable of ensuring basic good and honest governance, which we badly need. Ideological indulgence can be curbed as we wait for normal times. The main drawback with Imran is that his analyses of the country’s ills look over simplistic. Problems like corruption and nepotism are indeed quite deplorable but these exist, in varying degrees, in almost all the emerging market countries and are not the chief factors responsible for Pakistan’s current predicament. Pakistan’s problems are more complicated, as a warped ideology and geopolitical vision have constantly led the country to making inopportune political and strategic choices. He is much more anti-American, anti-drone and ready to make deals with the Taliban, to stop the terror at home. Yet, he understands well that Pakistan is a country urgently in need of new thinking. Even though many Pakistanis want a new face to lead the country, Imran’s lack of command and control of electoral politics in Pakistan do not make him favourite to win these elections despite his immense personal credibility with the people of the country. He remains a long shot, for the moment.

As the things stand today, PMLN seems to be in lead running into the elections, as the people scratch to find the least bad option to fill the vacuum of leadership at the national level. That brings a great responsibility on its shoulders. Not the least because it is likely to emerge as a marginal winner only by dint of its vast acceptance in Punjab, by far the most populous province. Nawaz Sharif’s first tenure was relatively good for the economy and the law and order both. He was able to curb the extremism of  Sipah Sahaba (ASWJ/LEJ) and other sectarian organizations. Second time round though, it was a different story as a ‘heavy mandate’ inflated Mian Sahib’s considerable ego leading him to attempt to become an ‘Ameer ul Momineen through the purported 15th amendment in the constitution. Luckily that did not come to pass as Mina Sahib’s crack at out-boxing the only veritable heavyweight in the country led to Mian Sahib’s knock out in the second round of the fight and the Amir ul Momineen in the making ended up in jail. However, during the same term, his decisions to conduct nuclear tests in reply to India and to pull back Pakistan’s troops behind the LOC during the Kargill, though he knew the latter could prompt his fall from power, were both brave decisions and I give him full credit for those.

To me one silver lining in Nawaz Sharif’s victory would be that his irreproachable right-wing credentials and his close bond with Saudi Arabia can allow him to take a stand against extremist violence without invoking a backlash from the Islamist parties impeaching his Islamic or patriotic credentials. Sharif is committed to cautiously improving relations with India, keeping open ties with America and trying to reform the Pakistani economy. He will likely have troubled relations with the Army. Also PMLN’s total connivance of Sipah Sahaba’s (ASWJ/ LeJ) organizational and networking activities in Punjab during its tenure, considerably estranges Shias and minorities from it. The misgivings are further abetted by the fact that it seriously contemplated an electoral adjustment with Sipah Sahaba (ASWJ/LEJ) and only backed off in the face of public pressure.

Meanwhile, Musharraf has also jumped into the fray, but he looks more like a comedian than anyone worth taking seriously. The nation would like to see him facing various charges against him in the courts and getting a fair trial.

However, the forthcoming elections can, at best, only constitute the first step in a long journey. What happens after them is what matters. The next government will have to hit the ground running. There are just so many things that are crying for immediate attention. Energy crisis, a failing economy, fiscal woes, terrorism, and menace of extremism all need to be addressed in earnest and quickly. These elections probably afford the last likely chance of rebuilding Pakistan. We have to move fast to be able to shake off our past and its baggage and catch up with the rest of the world.

Whoever wins the elections will inherit an economy and government that is in deep trouble. Two-thirds of 185 million Pakistanis are under 30, and 40 million of the 70 million 5 to 19 years old are not in school. The youth bulge has yet to spike. Less than one million Pakistanis paid taxes last year. Most politicians don’t pay any taxes. Power blackouts are endemic. Clean water is increasingly scarce even as catastrophic floods are more common. Growth is 3%, too little to keep up with population demand. Yet all these do not add up to the country’s biggest problem.

Terrorism poses the single biggest threat to the country and its cultural fabric and should be the first priority for the next government. As the US and NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan will have to make some extremely critical choices. The next government must ensure that Pakistan clearly and unequivocally puts its weight behind pushing the Taliban to negotiate, renounce Al Qaeda and enter into a political process with Kabul. If that happens, the chances are the war might end in Afghanistan and if after 35 years the guns fall silent in the Hindu Kush it will take out much of the wind behind the sails of terrorist and sectarian outfits operating in Pakistan. It will also enable the government to hit at the strategic and operating capacity of these organizations. On the converse, succumbing to the ISI’s temptation to push for a Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan would spell doom for Pakistan’s internal peace. The government should also cooperate with the international forces to find Zawahiri and banish Al Qaeda from Pakistan.

In order to obviate the agency’s intrigues against an elected government, as we have constantly witnessed over the years, the next head of government should have influence over ISI. In view of the challenges outlined above, it is no wonder that the generals prefer to have the civilians responsible for managing the unmanageable, while they guard their prerogatives and decide national security issues. One very important decision for the new government to make would be to pick the next COAS.  The era of the current incumbent has been an epitome of ‘Deep State’. On his watch, there have been constant conspiracies against the elected government. Afghan Taliban have regrouped in Quetta. Pakistani Taliban have made considerable gains. Osama Bin Laden was found to have been living for years at less than a kilometre from Pakistan’s military academy. LeT conducted the attacks in Mumbai. He was the first DG/ISI to become COAS and his performance in the office is a strong message for the future.

The next government must also sue for peace with India. It makes pragmatic sense for India to respond favourably. Today, India’s economy is eight times larger than Pakistan and by 2030 it will be 16 times larger. But an increasingly prosperous Indian middle class needs a healthy neighbour. A failing state, or worse a jihadist state, makes for a very dangerous neighbourhood.

Finally, we must campaign as hard as possible and vote for our preferred candidates and parties. But once the elections are over, all of us in Pakistan, plus the international powers, must be supportive of the new government as long as its compass points in the right direction. These are crucial times for a country which has now been plagued by coups, intrigues, and assassinations for decades and is currently faced by unprecedented terrorist and sectarian violence in its history. This same country is trying to become a normal state where an elected government completes its term, electoral process adheres to international democratic standards, Election Commission chooses the interim Prime Minister, and power is peacefully passed from one elected government to the other. This democratic order and process must continue, for it constitutes the road to Pakistan’s survival. The people of Pakistan have been the real victims over the decades and deserve the democratic process to run its course to absolute normalcy that is likely to take several such elections.



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