We have a caretaker Prime Minister, who is seldom seen or heard. He was one of the nominees of the outgoing coalition government led by the PPP. So are the Chief Ministers in the provinces.

Nature abhors vacuum. A few days back, we saw the Chief of Army Staff filling a little of this vacuum when he represented Pakistan at the tripartite US-Pakistan-Afghanistan consultations in Brussels.

Last month, General Kayani’s speech at the Kakul Academy passing out parade, raised liberals’ eyebrows where he emphasised the pivotal role of Islam in the making and sustaining of Pakistan. His April 30 speech, on the eve of Youm-e-Shuhada at the GHQ, has evoked a lot of interest in the media. There has been a spate of editorials, op-eds and special reports.

The Army Chief’s address is a candid and well considered statement about the coming elections, the military’s expectations and apprehensions, an expression of assurance for successful holding of the May 11 elections and the army’s role in helping the Election Commission of Pakistan do its job smoothly, as well as in dealing with terrorism.  “The general elections will be held in the country on May 11. We must not harbour any doubts or misgivings about it,” said Kayani. Here, he was signalling a message to those who have been contemplating or working for the postponement of the polls. He claimed that the army had endeavoured to strengthen democracy during the past five years.

Kayani expressed optimism when he articulated the hope that the next elections are a “golden opportunity” when “an era of true democratic values” would be ushered in. He highlighted the “true virtue” of democracy that to his reckoning lies in the safety and welfare of the masses. The success of democracy, he opined, is linked with the well being and prosperity of the nation. According to him, awareness and participation of the people can “truly end this game of hide and seek between democracy and dictatorship.”

When there is no primacy and precedence of larger public interest over personal interests, whether democracy or dictatorship, “governance would remain a means of.......plundering national wealth and resources,” he observed. And further that salvation lies in transforming the government into a true form of public representation. If this does not happen and, indeed, it has not happened, the dream of our forefathers remains unfulfilled. In what may appear to be flourish of rhetoric, General Kayani was clearly making two points.

One, if there are free and fair elections, and democracy is practiced in its true spirit, governance will work for the good of the people and the country would make real progress.

Two, if the politicians keep pursuing their own selfish interests and continue plundering the country’s resources, there is every possibility of a dictatorship returning to run the country’s affairs.

In other words, the politicians themselves sabotage the promise of the democratic option because of their corrupt practices and bad governance, preparing the ground for an ambitious general to march in. Thus, Kayani, on the one hand, was proclaiming his support for democracy and, on the other, administering a veiled warning about the possibility of a return to dictatorship.

The second part of Kayani’s significant address pertained to the menace of terrorism. Here too, the General, on the one hand, unequivocally took a firm stand for going all-out to fight the scourge of terrorism and root it out, and, on the other, kept the door open to engage the militants provided they “unconditionally submit to the state, its constitution and the rule of law.” He counselled against debating about the “causes and origins” of the war on terror and urged concentration on defeating the terrorists. “Does the fight against the enemy of the state constitute someone else’s war?” he questioned.

At the same time, he did express the “desire” that all those who had “strayed and have picked up arms against the nation, return to the national fold.”

Looking forward to a post-election Pakistan, barring a tsunami resulting in a sweep for PTI, the new government may be, to some extent, an improvement on the previous one. It will, however, be considerably short of Kayani’s expectations. And Kayani’s successor may not be as restrained as he has been all these years. If, in these circumstances, Imran’s PTI sits on the opposition benches, his role as its leader will be crucial to keep the erring new government on its toes about its duty and conduct.

As for terrorism, how does the General explain the fact that despite the long drawn out and continuing operations of the military under his competent command, the Taliban militancy and influence has not declined. In fact, it has increased to the extent that they are openly threatening certain political parties, providing them an excuse for the postponement of the elections.

All that Imran Khan says is not hot air. We have to find a way to bring, according to Kayani’s own words, the “strayed Pakistanis back into the national fold.” And the sooner the better. There is an urgent need to take the nation into confidence about the reality of the different strands of the composite called the Taliban of Pakistan. The anti-Pakistan and foreign elements need to be identified, sorted out and eliminated.

The erstwhile coalition partners, who ruled at the centre and in Sindh for quite some time, are reported these days to be targeted by the Taliban. The trio has raised the question of a level playing field for all political parties. They have a point worthy of serious consideration. One, at the same time, wonders what it is that they were doing during the last five years when they were in power. One is amazed at the way they deliberately neglected to develop a strategy, as also a mechanism, for effectively countering terrorism. They kept suffering from militant attacks, while following a policy of drift and dilly-dallying. The Taliban a few weeks back made an offer to them to hold talks to settle the terms for ending violence. This offer was considered by the ANP, who held a meeting with the other political parties. This meeting, however, was not seriously followed up with the result that the offer fell through. It also appears that the army bosses were not formally consulted.

The Army Chief’s recent categorical statement that the fight against the terrorists would continue with vigour should be sufficient assurance to the trio that necessary steps would be taken against them. General Kayani was aware of the terrorists strikes in Karachi and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when he expressed his commitment (and support) to the holding of elections on May 11. It needs to be added that there has been no peace in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi for the last many years. It is not a new phenomenon.

With India flexing its muscles (turning the unfortunate death of a proven convicted master terrorist into a national tragedy announcing a three-day national mourning, a state funeral and elevating him to the status of a national hero), and Karzai’s Afghanistan indulging in hostile acts against us, Pakistan can ill afford a prolonged military operation against its own people.

The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.