COLUMN - Pakistan's elephant in the drawing room

(C. Uday Bhaskar is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst. The views expressed in the column are his own)

Handout photo of New Delhi-based strategic analyst C. Uday Bhaskar. REUTERS/Handout/Files

By C. Uday Bhaskar

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of charismatic former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has shown rare courage this week.

This was evident on July 7 when he addressed retired bureaucrats and asserted: “Let us be truthful to ourselves and make a candid admission of the (domestic) realities.”

Dwelling on the current challenge posed by the Taliban and its support base within Pakistan, he added that these were a ‘deliberate creation’ of the establishment in the past.

“Militancy and extremism emerged on the national scene and challenged the state not because the civil bureaucracy was weakened and demoralized, but because they were deliberately created and nurtured as a policy to achieve some short-term tactical objectives,” he elucidated.

This is an accurate assessment about the elephant in the Pakistani drawing room -- but till recently it was both blasphemous and anti-national in Islamabad to acknowledge this truth.

Now that this assertion has the stamp of the Pakistani President it would be reasonable to infer that there will be a flurry of both introspection and invective.

Pakistan has been living in a state of strategic denial about itself and this distorted narrative has been nurtured by the military-mullah ‘establishment’ abetted by a predatory clique that has advanced its own agenda.

The seeds for this distortion of the Islamic faith to stoke religious radicalism, militancy morphing into wanton terrorism and extremism were laid during the General Zia-ul-Haq years and this was reiterated earlier in the week.

On July 5, some sections of Pakistan led by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) observed a Black Day to recall the ‘tragedy’ of July 5, 1977 when General Zia overthrew PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (father of Benazir) and began the long military rule.

Senior PPP leaders castigated General Zia for overthrowing a democratically elected government and accused him of having massacred the people’s Constitution of 1973.

They also noted that Pakistan is now at a war that is the legacy of General Zia and his successor in 1999, General Pervez Musharraf.

The military-led establishment in Pakistan has kept alive a false narrative that Hindu India represents an existential threat to its survival and tried to ‘legitimize’ the support to terrorism.

The truth about the 1971 war that led to the birth of Bangladesh was suppressed and an intense but invalid persecuted nationalism kept alive.

India became the ‘dushman desh’ -- enemy country -- and its Hindu identity emphasized despite the reality that India has more Muslim citizens than even Pakistan and is second only to Indonesia.

Soon after becoming President, Zardari made many radical statements about Pakistan and its relationship with India -- and had to retract his position later due to the complex power grid in his country.

But today with the anti-Taliban operations in the troubled Swat and Buner areas appearing to have succeeded, it is a more confident President Zardari who is asserting himself and exhorting his country to accept the realities about its security compulsions.

India is the red-herring that has been skilfully used for decades to create a virtual reality about Pakistan’s military options.

The Pakistan military cannot hope to get away with a repeat of a conventional war as in 1965 or the kind of ill-advised covert ingress of 1999 in Kargil.

If the Zardari candour is not taken to its logical conclusion -- a deep and sustained introspection about false narratives and selective distortion -- there may well be a replay of the domestic discord in the run-up to the 1971 and the dismemberment that followed.

President Zardari may not have been explicit but the sub-text of his remarks to the retired bureaucrats on July 7 is sagacious.

“We intend to keep all the political forces together in a harmonious relationship as we (Pakistan) cannot afford political games and confrontational politics. We are at the brink and we must realize that political games for personal gain can no longer be played,” he cautioned.

Now it is for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz -- PML(N) -- and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam -- PML(Q) -- to rise to the occasion and close ranks with the PPP - but can Pakistan break the Sisyphean jinx that has afflicted it since inception?