The events of the past few days have proved that, in real life, after the beautiful princess marries the handsome prince, they do not necessarily live happily ever after. The PPP-PML-N break-up in London, despite the many smiles and handshakes for the cameras, had in many ways been anticipated. Indeed, the deal reached at Dubai was clearly intended only to cover up the differences and delay the inevitable. It is of course always sad when romances end. This is true in this case too. The dream of a new order, in which forces of democracy unite against the forces of evil, as in some epic from the ancient world, has died. The PML-N has quit the federal cabinet, but decided not to withdraw support for the government. For the moment, in the blame-game that follows every high-profile divorce, Nawaz Sharif has emerged as the hero, the ‘wronged’ partner to whom promises were not kept. Zardari, in the eyes of much of the public and the media, is very much the villain.
The collapse of the talks has been followed immediately by the opening up of a new, potentially dangerous, media front against the PPP. The PCO courts have slapped new restrictions prohibiting the airing or publishing of news derogatory to the judges. Allegations have been made that Rehman Malik, that slippery adviser to the prime minister on interior, who has within six weeks of government featured in a series of rows, made direct threats to a leading television show host in the presence of Zardari. Reports of a list of journalists and anchor people that the government wishes to ‘put in their place’ have surfaced. Zardari has swiftly denied any plans to act against the media, but this is unlikely to be believed.
It can only be hoped though that the PPP is sincere in its insistence that it has no plans to target the media. Doing so would amount to political suicide. Immature, loud and irreverent as the television channels are, the fact is that their existence offers an immense improvement over the age when PTV’s propaganda held unchallenged sway. Rulers need to remember that TV channels can mature and develop the professionalism they need only if they are permitted to flourish, make mistakes and learn from them. The leaders themselves, like those elsewhere in the world, must develop skills and strategies to cope with them and learn to function under the constant gaze of cameras. US politicians, who seem to have made it a habit to drop in unexpectedly on Mr Zardari and also Mr Sharif, could probably offer some tips. While ire against the media runs high in official circles, those in power should be thankful for small mercies, and the fact that the Pakistani electronic media, unlike its counterpart in the US, steers largely clear of personal lives. The frenzied media prosecution of Bill Clinton over his alleged affair with Monica Lewinski is a reminder of this.
Many among the present PPP high command have also watched at close range Benazir Bhutto’s deft handling of the media. It is true she did not rule in a time of multiple television channels, but both her tenures in power were marked by a principled tolerance for an often hostile media, a willingness to engage freely in conversation with journalists and a refusal to resort to the coercion and intimidation tried out by both Nawaz Sharif and General Musharraf. The PPP must keep this tradition alive. Steering away from it would be disastrous.
Already, the party carries the burden of caving in to an establishment that Asif Ali Zardari firmly believes is arrayed against him. As a result of events over the past month, ranging from the mysterious by-election delay and the judicial issue, the perception is that the PPP is working hand in glove with the presidency. The vision of a troika made up of Zardari, Musharraf and Altaf Hussain looms large in many minds. The image is not a pleasant one. Few citizens wish to see Pakistan in these hands. The countrywide protest staged to mark the anniversary of the Karachi carnage on May 12 and to reaffirm the call for a restoration of judges is proof of this.
The PPP has consistently stated the restoration of the deposed chief justice was never a part of its manifesto. It must now find the courage and the commitment to deliver on those issues that, clearly, were a part of its agenda. The apparent paralysis that afflicts governance must end. The primary PPP slogan, both during elections and immediately afterwards, was of offering relief to the poor. This must be delivered on. There is already criticism that little has been done to implement the programme chalked out for the first 100 days, with its provisions of an increased minimum wage, social security benefits for the poor and relief in other forms. Some facets of this programme need to be put into effect immediately, to salvage something from what is a bleak situation.
For the present though, a sense of chaos prevails. No one seems able to determine if there is a broader game plan afoot, or whether things are simply being permitted to fall apart as a consequence of incompetence and inexperience. Speculation that a judicial restoration is indeed planned some weeks down the line, tied in with a constitutional package to be tabled by the PPP, lingers on. Some whispers say the PML-N, which is eager to keep intact its hold on Punjab and retain PPP support for this, is aware that its ministers may step back into the federal cabinet in the not so distant future. The degree of controversy that surrounds certain figures, notably Rehman Malik, adds further volume to the swirling clouds of fog.
Against this backdrop, even the successes that have come are being overlooked. The steps taken to bring peace in Balochistan, that include the release of former chief minister Akhtar Mengal after 13 months in jail, offer hope for the future. So too does the freeing of Dr Safdar Sarki, a Sindhi nationalist and intellectual jailed since February 2006. The opening of jail gates to let out these men has been greeted with joy in Sindh and Balochistan.
The fact that the ANP government in the Frontier has persuaded Maulana Fazalullah to agree to a ceasefire in Swat is also a significant step forward. Till now, all efforts to do business with the fiery Maulana who had exerted his writ over the Malakand area, had floundered.
But till greater clarity can be established as far as the overall picture is concerned, these achievements will mean little. There are also, of course, only beginnings. A great deal remains to be done. For this to happen, the immense doubts that exist, the distrust that now hangs everywhere and the feeling of dejection among people need to be overcome. The challenge is immense. The people’s struggle for judicial restoration is likely to continue; a march on Islamabad is possible — and what the future will bring is still shrouded in much uncertainty.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor
Source: The News, 15/5/2008