By Vinay Kaura
Pakistan’s hybrid system of government oscillates between patrimonalism, semi authoritarianism and quasi-democracy. The military is Pakistan’s most powerful institution which uses both populism and democratic cover to legitimate its dominance, while the civilians are left with little option but to depend on the military to stay in power.
Pakistan’s military elite in a furtive understanding with religious right-wing parties uses the weapon of Islamic ideology to tame Afghanistan, ‘bleed’ India and provoke the gullible masses against domestic opponents to the military’s dominance.
The mainstreaming of militant Islamists in Pakistani politics is gaining ground and the forthcoming general elections will witness an unparalleled participation of radical religious parties, some of which are overtly militarized and others are less covert in their militant worldviews and objectives.
The ‘good’ jihadists belonging to the rabidly anti-Indian terrorist organization, Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT) and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), whose leader Hafiz Saeed had formed a political party known as the Milli Muslim League (MML) in August 2017, will soon be mainstreamed through electoral process. When the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) did not register the MML as a political party, it was decided to field their cadres through a registered political party, the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (AAT).
Last November, Musharraf had openly declared his support for the LeT and JuD. He had asserted that “LeT and JuD are both very good organisations of Pakistan” because “I have always been in favour of action in Kashmir and I have always been in favour of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir.”
Another hardline religious party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which is the political front of Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), is reported to have received patronage from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. Their campaign material often depicts photos of those who have murdered in the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s honor. The TLY was originally founded to run a campaign for the release of Mumtaz Qadri, who was convicted and executed for the murder of the then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. And it was the TLP which had brought capital Islamabad to a virtual standstill for three weeks in November over a blasphemy issue which finally led to the resignation of a federal minister.
Pakistani Punjab’s caretaker government has taken a bizarre decision to unfreeze assets of Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi and to remove a ban on his Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) movement, a sectarian extremist group formerly known as Sipah-i-Sahaba. The banner of the Pak Rah-e-Haq Party (PRHP), a registered political party.
In terms of the actual outcome, this election will surpass the 2002 general election outcome, which saw the emergence of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) alliance crafted under General Pervez Musharraf to sideline the mainstream political parties. But there is a huge qualitative difference in the two scenarios:
If the MMA comprised largely of mainstream religious parties such as the Jamiat-ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), Jamiat-i-Ulema Pakistan (JUP), and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) with electoral track records, the recent rise of overtly militant and rabidly right-wing Islamist parties threatens to pose a serious challenge to the mainstream religious parties while denting their vote banks. This clearly indicates deliberate institutional attempts to surreptitiously foist them on a largely unsuspecting electorate.
The new crop of parties are far more violent, intolerant and obscurantist than the mainstream religious parties. At a time when a mainstream political party – PML-N – has been subjected to extraordinary judicial scrutiny and many popular mainstream politicians have struggled to file their nomination papers, the ‘good’ jihadists or the militant Islamists seem to have encountered virtually no scrutiny at all. Mainstreaming of militant Islamists without forcing them to reorient their objectives and tactics is bound to have long-term implications on Pakistan’s strategic culture and impact Indo-Pak relations.
Ironically, when Pakistan was recently placed on the ‘grey list’ for failing to curb anti-terror financing by the FATF, China not only praised its ‘all-weather friend’ but also asked the international community to recognize “enormous efforts and sacrifices” made by Islamabad to combat terrorism. Going a step further, China has come to Pakistan’s rescue with the grant of $1 billion loan to boost its plummeting foreign exchange reserves.
After the ‘informal summit’ between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, there is a positive momentum between the two countries to build trust. Both sides are keen to cooperate on many issues including counter-terrorism. But it is strange that the Chinese government seems satisfied with Pakistan’s counterterrorism record.
It needs to be noted that US had once followed policies what the Beijing is currently pursuing in the hope that it will remain unaffected with its adverse consequences. American support to repressive regimes in the Middle East ended up legitimizing the violent Islamism it was supposed to curtail. The Pakistan army’s use of jihadist proxies has led to the creation of infrastructure used not only against India and Afghanistan but also against the Western countries.
If China believes that condoning Pakistan’s state sponsored terrorism and mainstreaming of militant Islamists would not affect its interests, it is wishful thinking at best. Policies guided by tactical needs ultimately lead to strategic defeats.
Vinay Kaura, is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan