How Pakistan is splitting from deep within

Although fragmenting politics makes sense for the 'deep state', there is a risk of escalating the problems confronting the country.

 |  5-minute read |   13-04-2018
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Counterintuitive though it may appear, the political engineering project of the Pakistani "deep state" currently underway runs the risk of taking the policy of "divide and rule" to a point where it will certainly divide the politics of the country but make it difficult to rule it in any meaningful sense.

Deep state

To an extent, fragmenting Pakistani politics makes some sense for the "deep state". The military-dominated "establishment" is deeply suspicious of any civilian leader with an inflated sense of importance, purpose, destiny or even public service. It is also extremely wary of a popular politician with a pan-Pakistan footprint or even complete domination in any of the provinces, and who can use public support to push through an agenda which runs contrary to that of the ‘establishment’.

Although the "deep state" has invariably managed to get its way even with political leaders who enjoyed a solid majority in Parliament, it is so much easier to manipulate politics and politicians if no single party commands a majority and only fragile coalition can form a government.

Exploiting the ambitions, egos, insecurities, jealousies and vulnerabilities of politicians is a so much more refined and sophisticated way of handling things than the messy, ugly and hamhanded use of the judiciary and other institutions of state to effect political change.

Unlike normal countries where a solid mandate is seen as a positive thing, in Pakistan a fractured and fragmented mandate is preferred by the "establishment" because it allows it to "guide" the democratic process in the direction it wants.

The trouble is that while the Pakistani "miltablishment" is adept in manipulating the political process, its track record in anticipating, much less handling, the unintended consequences of its political engineering has been quite poor, and at times even disastrous. Invariably, and perhaps unwittingly, the "deep state" ends up unleashing forces that it then finds difficult to control.

The first real signs of fragmentation of politics in Pakistan became manifest in the 2013 polls. None of the so-called national parties really got any worthwhile support outside of their bastions. The PMLN swept Punjab and was able to form a government in the Centre merely on the strength of the seats it won in that province.

The PPP was limited to rural Sindh, with urban Sindh being swept by the MQM. Imran Khan’s PTI managed to grab Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and half-a-dozen seats in Punjab. And Balochistan threw up the sort of split mandate that it always does. Since 2013, the process of fragmentation and whittling down of the main political parties has gathered pace, with a lot of help from the "deep state".

It started in Karachi where the MQM was systematically demolished. The MQM has borne the brunt of the security operation launched in 2013 to clean up Karachi. Scores of its cadres were killed in "encounters" or went "missing", many more were arrested, its offices were raided and sealed, a gag order was imposed by the judiciary on its leader Altaf Hussain.

After a provocative speech by Altaf in August 2016, the party was virtually dismantled. As of now, with the MQM split into four factions, Karachi is up for grabs. But while MQM has been degraded, it is unlikely that pro-establishment parties that have been propped up by the "deep state" will be able to address, much less constructively channelise, Mohajir disaffection and alienation.


Regime change

In Balochistan where disaffection against Pakistan is at a peak, the military engineered regime change by instigating a rebellion against the PMLN-led coalition government. The PMLN, which was the single largest party, has virtually ceased to exist, its members bribed and browbeaten to elect a political non-entity as chief minister. Defections were also encouraged from other parties and a new coalition of lackeys of the military was foisted on Balochistan.

The Balochistan model — political orphans, independents, and pliable, subservient and fungible characters being brought together to form a government — could well be replicated in Islamabad after the 2018 polls. Already, a pilot project of this model has been successfully implemented in the Senate where an independent Senator from Balochistan was elected chairman of the Senate with the support of all opposition parties and some PMLN turncoats.

Religious parties

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the politics is already fragmented, what with over half-a-dozen parties vying for votes. The revival of the religious parties alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) often lampooned as Military-Mullah Alliance, is expected to cut into votes and seats of ostensibly moderate parties like PTI, ANP, PMLN and PPP.

The X-factor in the Pashtun belt in the tribal areas, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan will be the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement — a non-political movement which is drawing massive support on the issue of Pashtun rights and could pour cold water on the miltablishment’s plans.

The real battle-ground will, however, be Punjab. To cut the PMLN to size in its bastion, defections are being engineered. Already, nearly-a-dozen legislators have deserted the party, ostensibly to push for a Seraiki or a South Punjab province. The grapevine is that many more of the "electables" will also ditch the PMLN in the coming days and weeks.

The fragmentation of the vote will be further ensured with the emergence of Barelvi party Tehrik-e-Labbaik, as well as the Milli Muslim League which is the political front of the Lashkar-eTaiba. The calculation is to create conditions in which it is impossible for the PMLN to sweep Punjab like it did in 2013. A split mandate in Punjab will ensure a split mandate in both Lahore and Islamabad.

That would pretty much be game, set, match for the "deep state". The only problem is that regardless of whether the current political engineering succeeds or fails, Pakistan could end up paying a heavy price: at worst, it could end up staring at another 1970-71 like spectre; at best, it will be saddled with an utterly dysfunctional government which far from addressing any of the economic, security, political and diplomatic problems confronting the country, will only worsen these problems.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Sushant Sareen Sushant Sareen @sushantsareen

The writer is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

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