S Iftikhar Murshed from Islamabad, Pakistan
Since the return to Pakistan last month of the Tehreek-e-Minhaj-ul-Quran (TMQ) chief, Tahirul Qadri, strange things have happened in unexpected ways. A political analyst, thinking loudly, quoted William Cowper's 1773 hymn: "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps on the sea, and rides upon the storm." He then commented that the country had drifted into an ocean of despair and there was little hope for the future.
It is from these perilous waters that Qadri has vowed to navigate the derelict ship of the state towards a haven of enduring stability and progress. But who is this mysterious helmsman whose prescriptions,
he claims, will bring in better,
Is he a Rasputin, who some believe was a faith healer and a mystic, whereas others say was a mad monk, who deliberately helped discredit the tsarist government, which led to the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 and paved the way for the Russian revolution? Qadri also swears by all that is sacred that he will set in motion the wheels of irreversible change that will crush the old, corrupt and decrepit order and replace it with the rule of the righteous.
In his address to a huge rally at Lahore on December 23, 2012 he pledged that he would descend on Islamabad with four million of his supporters on January 14, 2013, if the government did not carry out sweeping electoral reforms in eighteen days (January 10). The event in the federal capital, he said, would overshadow the dramatic protests at Cairo's Tahrir Square, which, (coincidentally also within a mere eighteen days) had brought down the 30-year-long Hosni Mubarak dictatorship.
Though the actual number of people that Qadri was able to muster for the long march was only a fraction of what he had said it would be, its impact has proved to be consequential. On arriving in Islamabad at 2am on January 15, in a short address he declared with a flourish that the march had ended and a revolution had begun. The corrupt government would crumble within days. True democracy, he said, no longer existed. Its actual visage had been transformed, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, from a thing of beauty to a hideous image of its former self because of the myriad crimes of commission and omission perpetrated by the ruling coterie.
On January 15 afternoon, Qadri was already two hours into his speech when the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Ashraf and fifteen other officials on the rental power plant case. The TMQ leader was jubilant. The prime minister and his government, he said, had lost all moral authority to continue in office. In a voice choked with emotion he announced amid thunderous applause that half the battle had been won and urged the enthused audience to offer supererogatory payers of thanksgiving.
He then abruptly adjourned the rally to the next day and said that he would spell out and explain his 'charter of demands' which would pull the country out from the quicksand into which it was rapidly sinking. Cicero, the philosopher and statesman of ancient Rome, had once said "how invincible is justice if it be well spoken." But justice has to be anchored in law, and, in particular, the constitution.
On January 16, in the course of a lengthy speech, Qadri said that he was not a mullah declaiming from the pulpit of shallow piety, but a lawyer whose objective was to instil an awareness of their constitutional rights among the multitudes. A peaceful revolution, unparalleled in human history, had been launched. It was founded on three basic demands, the fourth being a mechanism to achieve these objectives.
The first, and most important, was that reforms must precede elections or else the same corrupt breed of politicians would win seats in parliament. This did not require any amendment to the constitution. All that was needed was a faithful implementation of Articles 62, 63 and 218 (3) of the basic law, sections 77 to 82 of the Representation of the People Act 1976 , and the Supreme Court judgement of June 8, 2012.
Admittedly the assemblies are saturated with tax evaders, fake degree holders, loan defaulters and those who had accumulated colossal wealth through graft and corruption. Qadri spoke at length about the strange poverty of the rich. These were people who lived in luxury but had impoverished their souls from which the priceless virtues of compassion and fellow feeling had long been banished.
The TMQ chief cannot be faulted for insisting that the coming elections must not yield the same poisonous harvest of corrupt parliamentarians. In his address, he implied that all laws are rooted in the rights of men but these existed in vain, as Macaulay believed, for those who did not have the courage to stand up for them.
The second element in Tahirul Qadri's charter of demands was the dissolution of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Four of its five members were nominees of the provincial governments and were therefore unlikely to be impartial. The only exception was the chief election commissioner, who was a man of unimpeachable probity, but he was not empowered to reverse majority decisions of the ECP no matter how unjust these may be. Qadri, who claims to be a constitutional expert, was surely aware that a restructuring of the ECP would require an amendment to the constitution.
The third demand was the formation of a caretaker setup through consensus among all the stakeholders rather than through the restrictive mechanism involving only the parliamentary leader of the opposition and the prime minister. Though the existing procedure is in accord with the constitution, it does not preclude taking other relevant parties on board.
The fourth and last plank on which Qadri had formulated his agenda for change was a mechanism for the implementation of his first three demands. The distillate was the preclearance of election candidates as per the stipulations of the constitution and the relevant laws. This was achievable within thirty days, and its rationale, as he explained, was "we don't want law breakers to become law makers."
He gave the government a deadline till January 16 night to accept these demands. The next day the political firmament was overcast with dreadful foreboding. In the pouring rain he told tens of thousands of his supporters, who, for four consecutive days and nights had braved near freezing temperatures with astoundingly dignified stoicism, that President Zardari had a mere ninety minutes, or, till 3 pm,
to authorise negotiations. If this
timeline was not met, there would be consequences.
The government nervously cobbled together a 10-member composite delegation consisting of its coalition partners. Five hours of intensive negotiations yielded the Islamabad Long March Declaration which conceded Tahirul Qadri's four-point charter of demands. The notable features are: (i) the National Assembly will be dissolved "at any time before March 16, 2013" to enable elections within 90 days; (ii) the caretaker prime minister will be appointed through "complete consensus" between "the treasury benches" and Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehreek; and, (iii) the difficulties arising over the composition of the ECP will be sorted out through discussions among legal experts.
Thus the TMQ chief's objectives have been achieved. He has emerged as a kingmaker as the caretaker prime minister, despite the stipulations of the 20th Amendment, cannot be appointed without his approval. Qadri lavished praise on the composite delegation, yet barely a few hours earlier he had described most of them as the scum of the earth.
The positive outcome of the high drama in the last few days is that the democratic process has not been derailed and the holding of the next elections in time is no longer in doubt. The only thing that can be predicted with mathematical certainty is that Interior Minister Rehman Malik will not be a candidate!
The writer is the publisher of Pakistan-based Criterion quarterly.