The Politics of Self-Destruction: Post mortem of May 12

The Politics of Self-destructionBy Talat Hussain
Syed Talat Hussain attempts to decipher the murky politics behind the violence of May 12 as the present government goes from the frying pan into the fire.
Newsline: June 2007

When popularity ratings dip, governments avoid trouble. In today's Pakistan, it is the exact opposite. Trouble is sought rather than skirted around. Karachi is a perfect example of this disconnect. Even General Pervez Musharraf's most clever foes could not have planned and executed a more successful bid to wreck his near eight-year-old hold over power. Drenching Karachi in violence, opening up old ethnic wounds, giving the opposition a new handle to thrash the government with, scaring away potential investors and earning the ire of international human rights bodies seems like an ideal centrepiece of any strategy to besiege the general and erode his political standing.

But it was not the evil political genius of Musharraf-haters who brought about this disastrous situation. It was created by the decisions taken in Islamabad by some of his closest aides, and these decisions carried his final seal of approval.

The motive behind the decision to paralyse the country's financial nerve centre on the eve of the arrival of the chief justice of Pakistan to address the Sindh High Court Bar Association was to "counter politics with politics." General Musharraf's advisors, says a source, played on his personal dismay at the hearty reception that the chief justice received in Lahore. Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry's caravan had travelled through the Grand Trunk Road in one of the longest and most riveting media events in national history. "The president was appalled at this kind of attention being paid to someone he genuinely believes is a wrongdoer and against whom a reference of misconduct is pending in court," says the source.

The general directed his spleen against the Punjab government, where the Chaudhries of Gujarat were given the rough end of the stick for not "blocking the circus." To these charges of "weak-handling" was added the more serious charge of General Musharraf's friends not doing enough to promote his name and demonstrate his popularity among the people. Punjab government sources maintain that they did not give in to pressure from the centre on this account because it would have led to severe clashes with the opposition.

"The opposition is looking for trouble. They want street violence, police action and agitation. They have seen how quickly this kind of a reaction from the government makes it unpopular. We did not want to give them the opportunity and therefore decided that the chief justice should have his space," says a senior member of the Punjab government.

Against the backdrop of Karachi's disastrous developments, where force was applied to contain the chief justice's reception, this seems like astute politics. But at the time, the Punjab government had completely lost favour with Musharraf's advisors, at least one of whom described it as "good for nothing."

This set the course of the decision on how to tackle the chief justice in Karachi: he had to be cut down to size, to be told bluntly that the political bubble of protest that he had created could be punctured with the slightest pin-prick.

What got delivered, unfortunately, was much more than a pin-prick: it was a punch that bloodied the government's own face. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement that ended up being the public face of violence in Karachi privately complains of the unfairness of heaping the blame only at their doorstep. Sources privy to the decision to block the chief justice's arrival in Karachi have told Newsline that "everyone was in on it."

"At one level the decision was very simple. The chief justice and his political advisors could not be allowed to make headlines and create the impression that they were the most important force in the country. If the city had to be brought to a standstill to stop them, so be it. That day there were to be only two events in the country: the pro-Musharraf rally in Islamabad, and the anti-chief justice rally in Karachi," says the source.

There was another reason for hoisting the government's flag over and above that of the chief justice's. General Musharraf's legal advisors had been constantly complaining of the "difficulties judges of the Supreme Court face with the mounting public sentiment in favour of the chief justice."

According to one legal source in the President's House, the Supreme Court has never been placed in a situation, where almost the entire legal community, the media and the large body of public opinion expects them to deliver only one type of verdict: clear the chief justice of the charges of misconduct.

"This is a dangerous situation. The judges cannot take an independent decision," said the source. Put differently, this 'dangerous situation' means that if the government's secret hands try to manipulate the proceedings of the case, the judges will not listen: some because they are taking heart from the pro-chief justice sentiment; others because they are losing heart for the same fact and are not open to the government's friendly 'advice.'

If Karachi could become the stage where the chief justice's political supporters could be overrun by an overwhelming show of force by the MQM, and "lakhs of people" could gather for General Musharraf on the streets of Islamabad, it would be established beyond any doubt who the real leader of Pakistan is.

General Musharraf's close confidants insist that violence in Karachi, much less murder and mayhem, was never part of the plan.

"Why would a sitting government stab itself by allowing citizens to be killed and chaos to rule?" said an irritated federal minister when interviewed by Newsline on the government's failure to protest life and limb.

Taking this logic at face value, and assuming that power politics, even at its most ruthless, respects life, it has to be said that those who did not foresee the possibility of violence in Karachi, did worse than plan it. They were totally unprepared for any eventuality that would cause Karachi to relapse into the dreaded days of gun-toting gangsters settling scores in ethnically divided neighbourhoods.

The obsessive focus on "keeping this man (the chief justice) down and out," had left no room for any other outcome.This is in part the reason why everyone in Islamabad remained in a state of denial for weeks, churlishly laying the blame of the violence at the doorstep of the lawyers, the political opposition, the chief justice and his legal advisors.

There is limited merit in the suggestion that an announcement from the chief justice's advisors about the cancellation of their visit could have helped to defuse tensions. However, it is hard to imagine how the spectre of killings and an elaborate preparation for the exhibition of force could have simply disappeared with an announcement like that. The opposition would have stayed on the streets, and the lawyers would still have protested, perhaps even more strongly than they did as they waited late into the night for him to arrive at the airport.

In the immediate aftermath of the events of May 12, there was no hard-nosed analysis of the monumental folly of opening up the barely-shut door of militant politics in an exceedingly volatile city. Nor of the dangers inherent in politically sanctioning a show of force, which can only provoke counter-force and imperil law and order.

This stance allowed the violence of May 12 to spill over into the next 48 hours, claiming more lives and poisoning Karachi's body-politic with revengeful, divisive and ethnically motivated hate.

It was the MQM that touched off a concerted attempt at damage-limitation, which is shoddy at worst and partially effective at best.

Taking the better part first, the initial hints of a judicial inquiry into the tragedy created an expectation that the government was open to fixing the blame where it belongs. While the track record of previous inquiries did not inspire much hope, at a critical point when tempers were flying high, such an inquiry could have gone some way in easing tense nerves.

Similarly, the governor's call to the Rangers, allowing them widespread powers to shoot down miscreants, did check the possibility of heightened violence. On the political front, General Musharraf's usual trouble-shooters tried to reach out to the Pashtoons in order to pacify them, asking them not to hammer too hard the point that the Pathans were the specific target of the May 12 killings. Since then, while the Awami National Party has been relentlessly critical of the MQM, its leaders have not specifically spoken of Pashtoon persecution.

The provincial government, particularly the city Nazim, has also restarted the campaign of making Karachi a financial hub, sending out signals to petrified investors that May 12 was an aberration, and not a sign of things to come. The governor's act of reaching out to the opposition was meant to douse the fire of anger and hurt.

But even these small attempts at retrieving a dangerously messed-up situation lie in tatters, now that the option of holding an inquiry has been practically discarded on the flimsy grounds that it would create rather than solve the problem. In effect, the government is saying that the killing of dozens of innocent citizens and the loss of limb, property and national image are not worth probing into. In common parlance this is known as a cover-up.

Perhaps the government does not want to probe too deeply into the Karachi situation because this city has become another name for the multiplying domestic problems that are nibbling at Musharraf's power base, unhinging the aplomb with which he wielded unbridled power, and widening the scope of the opposition's politics of agitation.

The more President Musharraf tries to avoid Karachi's grim realities, the more the opposition's vicious attacks on his ethnic background aggravate the situation. As it is, this issue has put him on the defensive: the opposition claims that he is going out of his way to defend the MQM, instead of keeping a more balanced and nuanced stance on the issue of the killings.

His main support-base, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) in the Punjab, is not entirely comfortable with his demand for a more forceful defence of the MQM in the parliament and in the media. Already cheesed off with the MQM's attempts to enter Punjab politics, the pro-Musharraf Leaguers are quietly letting their coalition partners take the heat of criticism. The bolder among them have spoken candidly with the president, suggesting that an explicitly pro-MQM posture could undermine his standing in the Punjab. For their part, the Pashtoon members of the federal cabinet, too, have been exceedingly unhappy with the Karachi developments and, at least privately, hold the MQM responsible for the mayhem.

Seeing knives out all around, MQM leaders seem to have worked out a back-up plan. Instead of taking it lying down, they could reconsider their association with the present set-up. Or at least put the threat of jumping ship out in the open if they get pushed and shoved around. Meanwhile, the whole Musharraf camp seems to have been broken into feuding camps, each claiming its pound of flesh from the skeletal structure of authority that the president controls.

Above this landscape of self-destructive struggle hangs the ominous cloud of Karachi re-living the horror of May 12. In Islamabad, the army top-brass put fingers in their ears whenever the term 'ethnic strife' is mentioned. However, theirs refusal to ackowledge this reality will not make it go away. The hard fact is that Karachi's politics have taken a turn towards ethnicity, and while its articulation by different groups may have been muted at this point, their future course of action is clear.

The other divide, between the Jamaat-e-Islami and the MQM, has also been cemented with an additional coating of hatred. Both have accused each other of killing party workers and have vowed revenge. Given the circumstances, Pashtoon nationalists may stand with the Jamaat's Pashtoon component in Karachi to take on the MQM. Again, as in the nineties, Karachi has become a ticking bomb that can blow up in the country's face. And those ruling Islamabad are still indulging in the self-deluding propaganda that all is well.

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