Pakistan is truly at the crossroads of history.
Tomorrow (July 25), this country of 20 crore people with an electorate of 105.9 million voters will decide whether to usher in a guided democracy with the shadow of the army looming large over it by electing the Tehreek-e-Insaaf whose leader is the redoubtable Imran Khan or re-affirm faith in the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) which is led by a three-time prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who is in jail for corruption and is anathema to the Army.
With Nawaz disqualified from contesting by the Election Commission, his brother Shahbaz Sharif now holds the party reins.
A third contender though not a frontrunner is the son of the assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto who is the torch-bearer of the Pakistan People’s Party and is depending on her legacy.
Also in the fray is the party of Hafiz Talha Saeed, son of the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks, Hafiz Saeed with his avowedly anti-India and anti-US stance. It is believed that the Pakistan Election Commission gave the final nod to his Jamaat-ud-Dawa after much vacillation at the instance of the Army which supports him to the hilt.
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The fact that the JuD is the political wing of an organisation that was banned by Pakistan and the US was brushed aside in accepting the party’s credentials to fight national elections. India is apprehensive that if Saeed’s party were to gain electoral weight, it would amount to mainstreaming terrorist ideology.
Some other Islamic fundamentalist groups are also in the fray in this crucial election which will determine the path Pakistan takes—of peace under a government that is conscious of its international obligations or of turbulence which would take it on the path of being a confirmed ‘rogue state’ with hardliners ruling the roost.
The PML (N) which had won the elections in 2013 convincingly has been campaigning on the strength of its economic record, including energy and infrastructure projects that are part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
It was being seen as the likely winner this time around too until, if the party version is to be believed, the Army colluded with a section of Pakistan’s higher judiciary to bring about a speedy conviction of Nawaz and his heir-apparent daughter Maryam.
By throwing many of its supporters in jail, browbeating the rank and file of the party and encouraging its rivals like Imran Khan, the game plan is all too clear—to deny power to Nawaz’s party. So petrified are people at large with openly backing PML (Nawaz) that opinion polls in the country have lost all meaning.
A recent public opinion survey has indicated that Imran Khan who is a Nawaz baiter has a slender lead in the crucial province of Punjab but there is a large number of undecided voters who could hold the key. These ‘undecided’ voters may well be Nawaz Sharif’s supporters who are too scared to acknowledge their support for PML (Nawaz).
By all accounts, the sympathy factor is working strongly in PML (Nawaz)’s favour but the army could go to any extent to deny power to that party.
Pakistan’s powerful military has ruled the nuclear-armed country for nearly half its existence. For the years it has not been in power, it has picked favourites among politicians to head the country.
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Therefore, there is an element of scepticism about whether it would allow Nawaz’s party to return even if the vote tends to go in its direction. When in power, Nawaz had refused to be a lackey of the military establishment. He had even favoured durable peace with India and had blamed the army for standing in its way.
The world is watching Pakistan to see which way its democracy goes. If the country drifts further into a stranglehold of terror and lawlessness, there would be hell to pay. These are indeed trying times for India’s recalcitrant neighbour.