Credited for putting together almost all the anti-government political alliances in the last four decades, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, the wily old man of Pakistani politics, was at it again.  Sporting his trademark red fez and holding the huqqa, he listened calmly as speaker after speaker unleashed a tirade of accusations against the Nawaz Sharif government at a seminar in Lahore titled "Washington Declaration A Betrayal of National Interests". Held on 12 August by the Pakistan People's Alliance, of which the Nawabzada is the president, the real aim of the seminar was to bring the opposition parties together on the minimal agenda of forcing the government out of office.

At the end of the meeting, Nasrullah Khan read out a statement that summed up the rhetoric of leaders from 37 political parties: "Nawaz Sharif is engaged in a meaningless dialogue with India. During the Kargil crisis, he repeatedly lied and misled the nation. And when Nawaz lost his nerve, he begged for a meeting with President Clinton and consequently agreed to withdraw the army and mujahideens from the line of control." As punishment for this cardinal sin, the statement demanded the removal of the Sharif government to be replaced by an interim government with "persons of good character and reputation" who shall pave the way for "free and fair elections".

More than the Nawabzada's final statement, the conference became important for a speech by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the Jamiat-e-Ulma-e-Islam, an influential religious party that enjoys a close relationship with the Taliban. Stealing the whole show, the Maulana gave an interesting spin to the Washington meeting between Sharif and Bill Clinton. He claimed that Sharif had assured Clinton that he would help the US against Osama bin Laden. He also repeated his now-famous fatwa that US citizens in Pakistan would be killed if the US attacked Afghanistan. "If we are not safe in our own country, then no US citizen would be safe here either," he said. All this helped the fiery Maulana from the NWFP province to achieve a consensus that the US would not be allowed to use Pakistani soil for anti-bin Laden activities.

All through the seminar, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the largest party in opposition, took a back seat, but not without its representative contributing his bit to the general mood of jingoism and talk of Islamic revolution. For all purposes, however, it appeared that an increasingly marginalised and cornered opposition, instead of portraying itself as a democratic alternative to the Sharif government, was trying to hit it where it hurt the most. The seminar also betrayed the opposition's desperation to recover some ground before the March 2000 elections to the Senate, the upper house of Parliament. But it is most likely that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League will garner the kind of brute majority it now enjoys in the lower house.

That may be bad news for the parties looking for a change at the top, but at the same time they wouldn't want to see any arrangement that would put the democratic process in jeopardy. For these parties borrowing the rhetoric of the religious right-wing in their bid to bring down the government may be expedient political strategy, but the fact remains that their interests are clearly at variance with the jehadi groups. And they wouldn't want to see the ascendance of any of the Islamic groups, which have so far proved no threat in electoral politics, although their 'nuisance value' was not to be discounted.

The government too stands on the crossroads of history at this moment. Never before has Pakistan seen a truly one-man government such as Sharif's, and never before has the government been under this kind of pressure from a disarrayed opposition. Sharif now seems to have two options: either to grant concessions to the parliamentary opposition and give it some breathing space; or play the religious card and show himself to be more Islamic than the opposition.

As things stand, both the government and the opposition seem to be content to let the religious parties dictate the rules of the game. And herein lies the real danger: of everyone —the government, opposition, and public —losing the game, with the exception, of course, of the Islamists.

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