The Lok Sabha polls are round the corner; the jingoistic Hindu vote looks larger than life, hence the high drama in Parliament over the incidents along the line of control in the vicinity of Poonch. Partisan considerations wash away the last bit of rational thinking. The media go along; they have to survive; if news is handed to them on a platter, of course they would not fail to avail of it, however ersatz or artificially manufactured it might be. The killing of Indian soldiers by men across the border was a fact, but the political response to it in the country’s Parliament could have been altogether different in case the powers-that-be in the two major political parties were even marginally concerned about the long-range national interests at heart. Such considerations for the present are apparently for the birds: the blame game for the Poonch incident and its aftermath has risen to fever pitch; elements in Pakistan have reacted predictably; combative resolutions have been passed in the national legislatures of both countries.
Call it prejudice, call it idée fixe, the notion of Pakistan as evil incarnate in any case dies hard. But the fact remains that there is an emerging new generation of Pakistanis who are sick of military regimes and coercive dictators and look forward to liberation from the claustrophobic milieu that has been their destiny till now. They voted in the Pakistan People’s Party with that dream in mind. This time they voted it out because they suspected its democratic credentials and, for lack of adequate choice, have opted for the Pakistan Muslim League in spite of its inglorious past. Considerable sections of Pakistan’s citizens are now demanding the freedom to choose. It is, they also realize, no easy task to accomplish what they have set out to accomplish. There are at the moment two main stumbling blocks. Segments of the country’s civil and political establishment firmly believe that Pakistan’s future lies in aligning fully with the global strategy of the United States of America and allowing the Americans to take full charge of the country’s polity and economy. We should not be astonished, for in India, too, this line of thought has been gaining in strength.
The main challenge to the pro-American hegemony has passed on to the Taliban. Americans themselves are largely responsible for the developments. The US army contingents had high hopes of stamping out the Taliban from Afghanistan. They failed. Worse, some Taliban groups they chased crossed into Pakistan territory and have continued to harass American forces occupying their native land. This has provided the excuse the US army brass needed. The US president has asserted some divine right to chase inside Pakistan the Taliban groups, low-flying drones are showering bombs on Pakistan’s land mass in the hope of annihilating the escaping enemy, killing hundreds of innocent Pakistani men, women and children in the process. These manoeuvres are aggravating animosity toward the US and deepening sympathy for the Taliban cause across the length and breadth of Pakistan.
Even while the entrenched military establishment, backed by American power, was effective in the control of the State in Pakistan, fundamentalist adherents of the Taliban cause had begun to strengthen their network. The conventional national parties, such as the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party, are a mixed bag of for-the-present bereft-of-a-role politicians, opportunists on the look-out for the main chance. The sprinkling of liberal-minded idealists is caught at a loss on how to proceed. The leadership of neither the PPP nor the PML is averse to taking the American line if that would assist them to assume power. Some of them are equally ready to strike a deal with the Taliban. This state of affairs has not deterred the new generation of secular liberals which has kept up with developments in the rest of the world, including the great churning in the principally Arabic-speaking countries in West Asia and North Africa. This group has set up as its goal the restoration of democracy and full civil liberties in Pakistan. In addition, many of them want to discard the cliché of India-baiting, even though they are convinced that the Indian authorities are as narrow-minded as successive Pakistani regimes have been on liberal issues affecting both countries. They are not unaware of the negative features of the Indian landscape: the lunatic fringe of the Ram Janmabhumi lobby, the pervasive corruption even outstripping the open stealings by those in power in their own country and the ongoing harassment of the minority communities in the name of suppressing terrorism. But they admire the free flow of ideas across India, the growing assertiveness of Indian women, the virtual abolition of social taboos concerning crucial aspects of life and living. They cannot quite dare to articulate it, but very much wish for themselves those free institutions that politically and socially conscious Indian citizens take for granted. More than anything else, they cherish the prospect of an open border with India which would allow untrammelled traffic of liberating ideas.
These diffused groups indulging in democratic reveries do not have either the capacity or the resources to fight the political battle on their own. Five years ago, they had largely organized themselves under the umbrella of the PPP and played a key role in ousting Pervez Musharraf. They were soon disillusioned with the Bhutto party. While a few stragglers still remain with it, the majority of the liberal crowd have chosen to distribute themselves all over, including not just the fledgling party of the cricket hero, Imran Khan, but even the Muslim League. They are desperately anxious that their voice is continuously heard both inside and outside the country, propagating the fact that the search for enlightenment is not yet a dead cause in Pakistan. There is no reason, they are telling their listeners, to give up, alternatives are conceivable beyond both America-backed army authoritarianism and the darkness-at-noon Taliban.
As part of this endeavour, they are urging the political parties they currently belong to to consider the possibility of an understanding with the Indian State, the underlying assumption being that both sides would agree to relent from rigid positions on pending bilateral issues. General Musharraf’s ouster has paved the way for a formal return to parliamentary democracy, but the overreach of the military establishment is still very much there. The latter has strong support even within the civil administration. At the same time, the insidious influence of the Taliban too has deepened in both civil and military agencies. The particular wing of Pakistan’s defence establishment leaning heavily on the Americans is at the moment at a disadvantage because of the surge of passion, spilling continental bounds, for the abstract and yet-not-so abstract Islamic cause. China, engaged at the moment on evolving a geo-political strategy appropriate for the world’s second most powerful nation, is most unlikely to dip its hands in the Pakistan mess. India, the closest neighbour, could, however, lose little in case it beams one or two positive signals which could enthuse those democratic causes in Pakistan.
For consider what the grim consequences could be if Pakistan’s democratic institutions collapse again and the country falls in the grip of the Taliban. The Americans would be ejected from the country. They would be most reluctant, though, to take this development lying down. They would want to fight what they have designated as the most barbaric Islamic terror from across India. Given India’s moribund economy and the lack of will as well as capability on the part of its political establishment to do anything about it, a meek surrender to the dictates of US foreign policy, as long as a lifeline was accorded on the economic front in return, could well take place. American military bases would then sprout all over the country. The drones would fly low along the India-Pakistan border and occasionally drop bombs which fall on this side of the border, killing Indian citizens. The US authorities would not even offer curt apologies for such ‘collateral damage’. Protests would tear the nation asunder. With the arrival of US troops on Indian soil, China would no longer be a disinterested spectator. The Northeast is already seething with divisive sentiments; it could now erupt on a gigantic scale.
This is not the first time that firing has taken place across the LoC. If only politicians of all shades were not so mulishly determined to capture the hardcore Hindu vote in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, they could have struck a blow for the democratic forces in the neighbouring country and, simultaneously, served their own long-term patriotic cause. After all, the newly installed prime minister of Pakistan did not delay to express regrets for the Poonch killings of Indian jawans; why not give him the benefit of doubt, perhaps the incident was deliberately created to queer the pitch for him? It would have caused no great hurt to accept at face value his expressed contrition for the happening and await further developments.
Hang the nation’s long-range interests; it is competitive democracy, outlast your opponents in blasting Pakistan and, come next year, ensure 272 constituency victories for yourselves in the Lok Sabha polls. Thanks to Indian politicians foaming in the mouth in New Delhi, it is jubilation time for both the army bosses and the Taliban in Pakistan.