Counting the cost

AS THE fallout continues to spread from the ghastly events of May 12, the government and the opposition continue playing their usual blame game. And judging from reports emanating from Islamabad and Karachi, there is no remorse or regret from those responsible for the bloody events in the Sindh capital.

By Irfan Husain

Published: Thu 24 May 2007, 8:38 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:28 AM

In fact, all we can see is obstinacy and truculence. The day after the bloodbath in Karachi, I spoke to a senior member of the MQM, expecting some acknowledgment that his party had completely misjudged and mishandled the situation. Not a bit of it. He was adamant that the MQM had the right to hold a rally whenever it chose to, even if it was as plain as day that it would trigger a confrontation. I tried to explain that while we all have a number of rights, we often choose not to exercise them.

A bit later, I had a long chat with a close adviser to General Musharraf. When I asked him what had been achieved by holding the official rally in Islamabad the same day as the Karachi killings, he also spoke of the ruling party's 'right' to hold it. So clearly, it's all about rights, and not responsibilities. I put it to both that whatever their complaints about Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry's insistence on addressing the Sindh High Court bar association on 12 May in the face of warning signals, surely law and order was the government's responsibility. But both were adamant that the whole bloody mess was caused by the Chief Justice's obdurate stance.

A couple of days later, General Musharraf repeated this message to a group of uneasy parliamentarians. He urged them to 'close ranks', reminding them that they were all on his team. He also directed the Muslim League members 'not to isolate the MQM', saying he would 'see' to the media that had held the MQM largely responsible for the fiasco. More recently, he has deplored the 'politicisation' of the judicial case by the opposition, as though his attempt to sack the chief justice was not political.

But as this dialogue of the deaf goes on in the presidency and in parliament, we are in danger of losing sight of the bigger picture. Apart from the tragic and unnecessary loss of so many lives, what do the recent events in Karachi mean for the country? For clearly, it can no longer be business as usual for the government or the opposition. For Musharraf, the options are limited, and he has been forced into a situation where he can only react to events. For a general, this is not a comfortable spot to be. Basically, he has to await the outcome of the reference against the Chief Justice currently being heard by the Supreme Court. Should his nemesis, Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, be reinstated, Musharraf will effectively lose his moral authority to rule. He may struggle on, but he will be a lame duck president. His crowd of opportunistic Muslim League supporters will desert the sinking ship in droves. Already, Mr Jamali, an ex-prime minister under Musharraf, has resigned.

If the Supreme Court decides in the government's favour, the agitation will continue, with the legal fraternity and the opposition claiming that official pressure was brought to bear on the judiciary. The recent murder of Hammad Raza, a senior official of the Supreme Court and a key witness for the Chief Justice, is something that will give weight to their argument. In any case, with the Chief Justice acting as a lightning rod, the anti-Musharraf movement will only gain strength over time. Musharraf will be beleaguered, depending on the isolated and discredited MQM, and a shaky Muslim League for support. The endgame might take longer, but the outcome would be the same: a politically wounded president clinging on for as long as he can.

There is (still) a third option, but one unlikely to be explored. When I suggested to Musharraf's adviser that the only way out was for his boss to withdraw the mischievous reference to the Supreme Court, he was clear that this was not a route the government was prepared to take. Indeed, army generals in Pakistan are not in the habit of apologising for their mistakes, or indeed, learning from them. And sure enough, Musharraf has been quoted at rejecting this option out of hand when it was suggested by a couple of Muslim League MNAs.

And what of the MQM? Until recently, there had been signs that this ethnic party was reaching out to the rest of the country, and trying to achieve a less narrow profile. By organising a huge rally against the rapid Talibanisation of Pakistan last month, it fell in line with the national mood. On a number of issues, it seemed to strike an independent, secular position that was out of sync with the reactionary stance adopted by its coalition partner, the PMLQ. A number of us had come to hope that the MQM's earlier violence was a thing of the past, and that a reformed party was poised to move beyond Karachi and Hyderabad. But its role in precipitating last Saturday's mayhem has proved that nothing has changed, and that it is as ready to use force to further its short-term agenda as it was in the past. Anybody who heard Altaf Hussain's bizarre address to the party faithful on 12 May will realise how out of touch with reality he is.

Another outcome of recent events is to firmly shut the door to the possibility of a deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. She is too canny a politician to throw a wounded president a lifeline, and inflicting irreparable harm to the PPP. There is thus a better chance for the opposition to unite than ever before during the Musharraf era.

Indeed, by launching this ill-advised pre-emptive strike against the Chief Justice to ensure his re-election, Musharraf has given the opposition a perfect platform.

As he tries to douse the domestic fires he lit in the first place, he is facing threats on a number of other fronts. The rising tide of violence along the Afghan border is an indication of things to come. In Balochistan, despite his threats to crush the insurgency, low-level violence continues unabated. Clearly, his American supporters must be getting nervous as they see their favourite regional ally facing the toughest test of his long stint in power.

Probably the most crucial element in this complex equation is the role of the army. Thus far, it has stood solidly behind its chief. The corps commanders form the ruling junta's sinews as well as its board of directors. Normally, the seniority gap between them and the chief can be measured in months. Now, due to Musharraf's decade-long stint as Chief of Army Staff, a wide gap has opened up. These officers are too junior to talk to Musharraf as near-equals. But they might have to remind him that the national interest and his personal interest have diverged too much for him to stay. And that time might come if the troops have to be called out in Punjab to maintain law and order.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani writer based in London. He can be reached at

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