The self-destructive PML-N   

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Sad state of affairs

Pakistan is relatively new to successful transfers of power from one democratically elected government to the next. After all it has only happened once after the 2013 election and, in all likelihood, will happen for a second time after general elections next year.

Up until Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification it was safe to say that the PML-N would again be making a government at the centre in 2018. Even after being sent packing by the judiciary, a N-league government under a puppet prime minister with Nawaz pulling the strings was plausible.

Nawaz Sharif’s ability to muster enough support in the National Assembly to thwart a constitutional amendment that would make him ineligible to remain party chairman dispelled rumours spread by the opposition that the party was in tatters.

Therefore the PML-N, for all intents and purposes, might have been down but was still kicking. However, no one could have imagined that within a matter of two weeks — since that minor success and show of unity in the lower house – PML-N’s electoral future would be turned inside out, upside down by a mob of charged zealots occupying Islamabad.

Throughout the course of the Faizabad sit-in there was not one instance where the government even attempted to nip it in the bud. As a result it ended up shamelessly doing what it could have done on day one rather than day twenty-five: sack the law minister and be done with it, why go through the motions to pretend you have it under control?

Why the same group that had overtaken D-Chowk in the capital a year earlier was again allowed to make its way through the same cities of Punjab unabated requires some explanation by Shahbaz Sharif. Why was the repugnant, abusive and bigoted Khadim Hussain Rizvi, despite being banned from the capital, allowed to set up a camp on Faizabad interchange?

Throughout the course of the Faizabad sit-in there was not one instance where the government even attempted to nip it in the bud. As a result it ended up shamelessly doing what it could have done on day one rather than day twenty-five: sack the law minister and be done with it

Simply put it was pure politics being played by multiple stakeholders without thinking about the long-term effects their reckless decisions would have on the country. For PML-N it was a matter of not alienating further an already disgruntled voter base i.e. the mullah’s.

Then there is the sheer incompetence of Ahsan Iqbal who comes off as an egotistical, spineless interior minister that can only talk the talk but not walk the walk. Multiple empty threats were made, meaningless deadlines extended, dead-end deliberations undertaken and in the end a botched operation was conducted that he conveniently blamed on the administration – all for nothing.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi only paid attention to the situation once it escalated and got out of hand. Nawaz Sharif, claiming that he was not even consulted when the decision to start the operation was taken, is also hard to believe considering he is still calling the shots as party chairman.

A report on the issue of the so-called “amendment” in the ‘Election Bill 2017’ was prepared but never made public. This only fanned the flames suggesting that the government had something malicious to hide and gave the TLYR rally all the impetus required to paint ex-law minister Zahid Hamid a blasphemer/threat to Islam and the government his enabler.

The judiciary — more specifically the Islamabad High Court (IHC) —  through the controversial Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, who once famously placed a ban on celebrating Valentines day in the capital, became an important stakeholder in the Faizabad sit-in. By allowing the use of force, Siddiqui provided legal cover to the clearing operation in the area.

When that operation failed miserably the government called in the army under article 245 of the constitution. Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa however had other ideas. Civil-military relations have been quite tense lately with both sides taking jabs at one another.

Setting arguments over the interpretation of article 245 aside, the COAS advising restraint on both sides and an almost satirical statement that they “could not take any action against their own people” showed how the military was not going to bail the government out of this pickle by conducting a full fledged army pedigree operation. Instead the COAS became a mediator between the government and TLYR.

Usually a mediated negotiation ends with both sides leaving something on the table. In this case the government left everything and the TLYR gladly scooped it all up. DG Rangers Punjab’s viral video showing him distributing 1,000-rupee cheques among protestors of the TLYR, released from custody as part of the agreement to end the sit-in, raises questions about whether the army’s involvement was limited only to resolving the crisis.

Justice Siddiqui expressed his outrage over the COAS becoming mediator and questioned whether the army’s response would have been the same had the protestors decided to hold their really near GHQ? These are valid questions but Justice Siddiqui should have shown some judicial restraint in such matters.

Two things are quite obvious from this whole episode. One, the government has in the past and continues to cede space to other institutions due to its arrogance and incompetence. With their top leadership embroiled in graft cases they have little moral ground to effectively defend their turf. If the Panama Papers case verdict cut off Nawaz’s feet, the Faizabad dharna has effectively taken out his legs.

Two, the fight against extremism has not even begun so debating over its status is pointless. It is easy to blame the PML-N but what have other political parties — who are also signatories on the National Action Plan (NAP) — done to make it a success?

How does the KP government under the PTI — granting Rs300 million to Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, dubbed the “Father of Taliban” — help the process of madrassah reforms? Why doesn’t Imran Khan censure Khadim Hussain Rizvi for his vile rhetoric even as, without hesitation, he labels liberals “blood thirsty” and a bigger threat to this country than the hate preaching maulvis and Taliban he so adores?

This abomination of an agreement between the cowardly government and the bigoted leaders of TLYR, brokered by the army, reduces NAP to nothing as it contradicts all its objectives aimed at curbing extremism. The validation and empowerment given to the extremists through the embarrassing capitulation by the government is depressing to say the least.

And this is where we are now: A nuclear-powered democracy with a terrorism problem where constitutional boundaries are blurrier than ever and a government that will be active, efficient, effective and go to extreme lengths to secure seats in the next general election even if that means bending over backwards to appease extremists that use religion to further their own political agenda. A sad and sorry state of affairs indeed!

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