The signing of a resolution with Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri on 17 January 2013 defused a dangerous political impasse brought about after the ‘Long March’ from Lahore to Islamabad and the follow up three-day sit-in with a huge following. Earlier, Qadri had announced an ambitious agenda from the Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore to cleanse the polity through electoral reforms and fresh elections under neutral Caretakers not bound by any time limit.
Who is Qadri?
In October 1981, Qadri formed the Minhaj-ul-Quran, a Hanafi Sufi Qadiriya Islamic foundation, inspired by the Saint Tahir Allauddin. It preaches a moderate version of Sufi Islam and has several international branches supporting inter-faith dialogue.
Qadri briefly flirted with politics forming a political party called Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) in 1989; but he functioned as an MNA only briefly under the then President Musharraf’s 2002 National Assembly Elections resigning mid-way through his term in November 2004. He left for Canada and took up citizenship there.
Qadri: A Conspiracy?
The manner of Qadri’s arrival, rumours of a red carpet escort from Chaklala Airport and the alacrity with which traditional political lackeys of the Military Establishment- the Pakistan Muslim League (PML Quaid-e-Azam) and the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM)- made common cause with his demands initially, led to justifiable speculation that Qadri had been put to this agenda by the omnipresent ‘Deep State’, to prevent any collusion between the People’s Party and PML (Nawaz) in establishing a Caretaker Government and holding elections.
Not to be left behind and feeling pressure that Qadri might steal his thunder especially in Punjab, Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan, threatened to level up to him with a ‘long march’ of his own. He announced a ‘seven point’ charter of demands which included the immediate announcement of the date of elections, formation of Caretakers without ‘mukmuka’ (collusion) between the two major parties- PPP and PML (N). Interestingly, he also wanted Asif Zardari to resign as President, on grounds of not being neutral and continuing to hold on to the dual hat of Head of State and PPP Party President, despite an adverse Lahore High Court verdict. However, he later changed his mind about joining the march after his supporters suggested this might be interpreted as a move to destabilise the democratic process at the Army’s behest. In effect, Imran would have fallen between two stools.
The timing of the Supreme Court’s judgement on the National Accountability Bureau case on corruption in award of the Rental Power Project tenders, ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and other senior bureaucrats on 15 January 2013, added a new twist to the burgeoning political crisis; reinforcing perceptions of anti-PPP and anti-Zardari political activism on part of the Iftikhar Chaudhry Supreme Court. The manner in which Qadri reacted, when apprised of the verdict mid-way during his 15 January 2013 speech claiming ‘victory’ and fulfilment of ‘one half of his objectives’, sustained suspicion amongst political analysts in Pakistan that this may be a ‘put up job’. However, since then, National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Chairman, Admiral Fasih Bokhari took the position that initial investigation in the case may have been somewhat shoddy. He firmly reminded the Chief Justice that he may be overstepping boundaries and even urged him to remember and respect his military rank. Mysteriously, one of the investigating officers in the case has since committed suicide.
Diffusing the Crisis: Zardari Style
The PPP first persuaded the leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, to withdraw support for the long march. Though MQM was looking for political space in Punjab, Altaf compromised after being assured that there would be no changes in the delimitation of Karachi’s constituencies at present. Later, however, Rehman Malik was much less successful in negotiating with Qadri over the calling off of the march.
Zardari rang up the evergreen political chameleon, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who then contacted the President of Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), Mian Nawaz Sharif. The latter held a meeting of Opposition political parties (including Jamaat-e-Islami and Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pakhtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party) on 16 January 2013). This meeting urged the Government to announce Election dates and form Caretaker governments at the Centre and in the Provinces.
The Army would no doubt have watched these developments closely. They may not favour stepping in directly at present, but given their intense dislike of the PPP or even a resurgent PML (Nawaz), an indirect controlling proxy through Caretakers authorised a longer stint than the constitutionally permitted 60-90 days, as was being demanded by Qadri initially, may have seemed a palatable enough option. However, they would be aware that after Abbottabad, the Army today does not enjoy public acclaim as adequate ‘defenders’ of the nation. They have their plate rather full on the counter-terrorism front after the attacks on Mehran, Kamra and Peshawar, and would want a consensual political taking of responsibility for the war against domestic Islamic fanatics, which has so far not been forthcoming. They may also find it difficult to gain international support or financial bail-outs from the West in such an eventuality.
Qadri may have been the kite flown to test ground, but for the moment, it will not be any more evident who the puppeteers calling the tune of the Islamic doctor of philosophy during the turmoil of the last few days were.