What Taseer achieved, and where he failed - Saeed Qureshi - Saturday, January 08, 2011

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

Salmaan Taseer distinguished himself as a PPP bulwark in Punjab by fighting on the front foot on behalf of the Pakistan People’s Party. Cast in an uncompromising and bellicose mould because of his incessant verbal feuds with the PPP’s adversaries, particularly the Sharif Brothers, Salmaan Taseer was equally known for his devastating repartee. At one time the imposition of governor’s rule seemed to be imminent.

A man with an overbearing and tough demeanour, Salmaan Taseer was the closest confidant of President Zardari, who spurned demands from diverse quarters to replace the governor with a less combative person.

Pakistanis watched in disbelief as the rhetorical vituperations in Punjab degenerated into dangerous political brinkmanship. The governor and Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif remained at daggers drawn. Then there were the verbal salvos Salmaan Taseer and Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah fired at each other. The attacks were a demonstration of what ugly proportions politics can assume on the verbal level.

Because of his unguarded, sweeping and hard-hitting statements, the late governor narrowed the popular support base for the PPP in Punjab. As a result of the governor’s aggressive approach, the PPP has remained in a defensive posture in the province. The coalition between the PPP and the PML-N in Punjab has never been harmonious. The late Salmaan Taseer can be held responsible to a large extent for the worsening of the political situation in the province.

At the same time, his combative, rash conduct made him a hate figure for the religious right, and this culminated in his tragic death. His visit to Aasia Bibi in prison and his press conference in which he heaped scorn on the clergy and criticised the blasphemy law showed how he underestimated the power of the religious outfits in Pakistan. His pronouncements against the blasphemy laws were unwise, because they were an unwarranted challenge to the violent and fanatical clerics in Pakistan. Given the present religious atmosphere in the country these days, even an ordinary person would have sensed that such challenges to entrenched rightist ideas were simply suicidal. They provoked the brutal and unforgiving religious demagogues. While his political opponents were nasty, the religious foes of the governor made a lethal attack on him.

In general, Pakistanis are liberal-minded and relatively casual with regard to the performance of religious rituals, even mandatory obligations. Liquor is legally prohibited for Muslims, but a segment of the Pakistani population drinks. Pakistanis also engage themselves in entertainment and merrymaking, which are equally frowned upon by the over-religious. But these Pakistanis seldom display public defiance regarding their conduct, as Salmaan Taseer did continuously.

That is why the whole religious lot, despite their mutual deep-seated sectarian disputes and differences, rallied onto one platform and launched a movement against him. There were looming threats to his life, with the religious zealots vowing vengeance for his perceived provocations. But it seems he did not take these grim threats seriously.

Nevertheless, there is another dimension to the whole situation .Salmaan Taseer was a great political stalwart of the PPP and a resolute defender and unswerving warrior for his party, and specifically for President Asif Ali Zardari. But his policies and muscle-flexing postures were making matters worse for his party, and not only in Punjab but in the other provinces too. There was concern within the PPP about the way the governor was running the show in Punjab. So his tragic assassination, although a heart-wrenching event for the party, may lead to the PPP high command appointing as his replacement someone who is more cautious and discreet.

One pernicious fallout of the blasphemy controversy is that the religious extremism that seemed to be on the wane seems to have resurfaced with new vigour and vitality. In the foreseeable future, no government in Pakistan will be in a position to amend Zia’s enacted blasphemy laws, even though they patently lack rationality and need to be brought in conformity with the spirit of Islamic jurisprudence. The professed secularism of the PPP would remain elusive until there is resurgence in civil society. Only this resurgence will put Pakistanis in a position where they can reassert themselves against religious extremists and against their myopic, over-dogmatic conservatism.

There are countless liberal and forward-looking people in Pakistan. But they lack the courage to come out and counter the obscurantist and reactionary elements. Religious orthodoxy and conservatism will remain dominant until a mass movement takes place in Pakistan to reduce the role of over-dogmatic attitudes in their daily lives and in the affairs of state.

Unless civil society, human right organisations and the progressive forces are strong enough to put up dogged resistance to the intimidating dictates and provocative antics of the religious zealots, no single person, not even someone as outspoken and daring as Salmaan Taseer, is going to change the stifling atmosphere.

One can gauge the powerful influence of the clerics in Pakistan’s society from the fact that the impoverished people, forgetting their own socio-economic sufferings, zealously take part in processions led by religious leaders and spiritual charlatans.

The writer is a Dallas-based journalist and a former diplomat. Email:qureshisa2003@ yahoo.com

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