In all the excitement over Tahirul Qadri, Canada’s most popular export since Bryan Adams, one thing has been overlooked: his power is restricted to holding meaningless rallies and will not translate to electoral victory. This likely does not matter to Qadri, who will enjoy his 10 minutes of fame, but it must be very aggravating for his patrons. The establishment, if you want to use a euphemism for the men in khaki, is used to silently guiding elections in its favour from behind the scenes. If that is not an option, it simply takes the reins of power and meets no resistance. Neither of those options seems possible this time round.
Instead, the military is reduced to just parading its man around Pakistan and whipping up likely paid participants into a frenzy over some of the most boring demands ever made by a demagogue. Unconstitutional though his suggestions may be, Qadri is hardly threatening to bring down our democracy with fire and brimstone. He just wants a caretaker government to be appointed — with the military being part of the selection process, of course — for a bit longer than it normally would. This is hardly the stuff of which anti-democratic revolutions are made.
Qadri may just end up representing the last ineffectual stand of the military. The institution that has been accused of rigging results is now not in a position to select our next government. The waning of its power was hastened by Imran Khan, who looked like he may be the man to take down the PPP, which the military has always abhorred, and the PML-N, whose anti-military stance has the army worried. But there now seems no chance the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf can win enough seats to have any influence in a coalition government, let alone emerge as the largest party in the country.
Recent events aside, the relative sidelining of the military has been in motion for a few years now. Thanks to the Supreme Court, whose brave stand against General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and recent investigation into the rigged elections of 1990 put the army on the back foot, the military would meet more resistance than ever before if it tried to dust off the doctrine of necessity for another round. This time, the PPP and the PML-N would be united, their many differences aside, in opposing army intervention. And there is absolutely no public desire for a military government despite the frustration and anger at the PPP’s shockingly poor governance.
We should look at Qadri, not as a threat but as the establishment ineffectually lashing out at its own lack of influence. Here, you have a man who has not lived in the country he hopes to change for many years. Renting a crowd is still easy for the establishment but there is a huge difference between feeding a couple of hundred thousand people pulao and buying off the entire electorate. Qadri is a nuisance, not a threat.
This does not mean the military has been sidelined forever. Part of the reason the PPP government has been able to complete its term is that it has abdicated huge swathes of foreign policy to the military without even trying to fight for it. Every time the military has felt threatened, it has lashed out like a spoiled child. The only difference is that now it does not bring down our entire system of democracy. It might get scalps like Husain Haqqani but the ultimate prize will continue to evade it for the forseeable future.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2013.