Friday, August 05, 2005


Reports of terrorists training camps in Pakistan being reopened, rising cases of infiltration from across the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir and the fact that so far no concrete action has been taken to uproot the jihadi infrastructure, have once again raised doubts about General Pervez Musharraf’s commitment to the peace process with India. But despite all the negative developments in recent weeks, Musharraf remains the one man on whom the future of Pakistan and indeed the peace process between India and Pakistan depends critically. One is aware that many people will roll their eyeballs in utter frustration at this proposition, because this is exactly what has been said about every individual who has ever ruled Pakistan. There are however very valid reasons for cutting some slack for Musharraf, but without compromising either India’s vital national and security interests or lowering the pressure on the General to delivering on his agenda of ‘enlightened moderation’.

Howsoever imperfectly, Musharraf is trying to reverse everything that Gen. Ziaul Haque did to Pakistan in the name of Islam. Musharraf’s public pronouncements against the fundamentalist and radical groups are quite revolutionary, at least in the Pakistani context. No one else in Pakistan has tried to take on the radical Islam, even if this is only verbally, the way Musharraf has. He has spoken in favor of reform of madrasas, blasted the closed mindset and petty thinking of the Maulvis and openly called upon the people to defeat the Islamists in elections, favored celebrating traditional festivals like Basant, reformed the political system by introducing joint electorates for religious minorities and reserving seats for women, and tried to introduce reform in the school curriculum and give it a more secular look. His general liberal approach has allowed the Pakistani society to breathe much easier and more freely than it has done in the last 25 years. Most of all he has tried to get off the Kashmir hobby-horse of the Pakistani military and religious establishment.

In Musharraf’s case, his evolution from a time he was an unabashed jihadi general, to a time when he thought he could run with the Jihadi hare and hunt with the American hound, to now when he is emerging as an outspoken critic of Islamic radicalism and a man ‘with a new heart’ on India, has been quite remarkable. It can however be argued, and quite correctly, that despite his efforts to put Pakistan on a moderate path, nothing has really changed – the madrasas keep spouting poison, the state schools curriculum has not changed in any significant manner, the minorities continue to be third-class citizens, the Islamists continue to do their own thing without much let or hindrance from the state. And yet, the fact remains that Musharraf has gone much further than all the so-called liberal and moderate political forces in trying to put Pakistan along a moderate path.

Musharraf’s critics continue place a great deal of faith in democracy to pull Pakistan out of the rut of radicalism. But the ground reality in Pakistan militates against such misplaced faith in the so-called liberal and moderate political forces. When, if ever, have these political forces ever spoken out as openly as Musharraf has done against Islamic fundamentalism? If anything, they have been duplicitous on the issue of both radical Islam and peace with India and have always hidden behind the coat-tails of the army to hide their duplicity.

Many will argue that the overwhelming and overbearing influence of the army in Pakistan's politics never allowed civilian politicians to really speak up against the fundamentalists. And since now the army itself has, at least ostensibly, undergone a paradigm shift on the issue of radical Islam and even India, the civilian politicians will be able to come into their own. But the corollary to this logic is that the civilians still follow the lead of the army. And if this is the case then why not deal with the army itself. What is more, many Pakistani analysts have commented that a civilian politician would have resisted international pressure to change course much more than Musharraf has done. If indeed this is the case, then it makes more sense to have someone like Musharraf at the helm rather than a politician who would try to hedge his bets and not go the whole distance in eradicating radical Islam.

Of course, Musharraf’s task of ridding Pakistan of Zia’s poisonous legacy is not easy. The virus of radicalism has spread too far into Pakistan's body politic. As things stand, Musharraf is today deeply unpopular in Pakistan not only because of the paradigm shift he is trying to bring about in the country but also because of his close relationship with the US and his peace overtures to India. While his ever growing unpopularity is a statement on how difficult his task is in reforming Pakistan, it also is an indication of how limited his space for maneuver is.

Musharraf’s problems are compounded by the fact that he has not been able to effectively sell his agenda for either political reform or the peace process. While the political opposition will not lose any chance to pull him down by accusing him of a sell-out, even the commitment of his own camp followers is suspect. His political partners – the ruling PML – are conservative with leanings towards fundamentalists and even as Musharraf raves and rants against radical Islamists, his own ministers, like Ejazul Haq (son of Ziaul Haque) pay eulogies to suicide bombers and express the desire to follow their path. He is unable to rope in parties with liberal pretensions like the PPP because of political compulsions. His core constituency – the army – too is not very comfortable with the direction and pace he is setting, especially since there is very little on offer as far as the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir is concerned. Another major problem Musharraf suffers from is that like any military officer he believes that once he has issued orders they are deemed to have been implemented. But this is hardly the case, with the bureaucracy and intelligence agencies playing their own games, especially when it comes to cracking down on the jihadi groups which they have nurtured for so long. This factor, coupled with exigencies of politics, that has often forced him to backtrack on some steps he has announced with great fanfare, has dented his credibility.

The big question therefore is: can Musharraf deliver? As things stand, Musharraf is fast running out of both time and options. His efforts to politically and socially isolate the jihadis have not worked. Nor have attempts to tighten the leash on the Islamists by banning radical groups, withdrawing open state patronage to them, closing down their fund collection machinery, and asking jihadis to furnish certificates of good behavior. Since the Islamists are simply not going to fade away from the scene, the only real option left is to eliminate them and their poisonous ideology by carrying out a Stalinist purge against them. But this will have massive political and social repercussions and could well ‘capsize the boat of the Pakistani state’.

The critical question before India and the West is how they can push Musharraf to do what is required to close down the Jihad factory in Pakistan. At the same time, they will have to devise measures that make Musharraf’s task easier, but without compromising either their commitment against Islamic terrorism or their own vital national and security interests. If India and the West give up on Musharraf now and don’t help him pull Pakistan out of the spiral of Islamic radicalism in which the country is caught, there is a real danger of losing an excellent opportunity to bring back from the brink ‘the most dangerous country in the world’.

Written on 3rd August, 2005


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