By Shaheen Sehbai
KARACHI: Asif Ali Zardari’s ultimate decision to finally come out of the closet and express his real views about General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, calling him a relic of the past, is nothing new and has been repeatedly expressed by him in private.
In my last session with him, with Dr Shahid Masood of Geo TV also present, about two weeks back in Islamabad, he had gone even one step further. “If they pressurise me too much, I would rather pack up the National Assembly, call fresh elections and let them deal with the president and the Army,” he had said.
By “they” he had clearly meant the forces agitating for the restoration of the deposed judges, including the PML-N and the lawyers. “I will see how much power they have to get the judges restored or remove Musharraf,” he had said in a challenging tone, broadly hinting that he may even go and live abroad with his family, which needs him desperately after Benazir Bhutto’s sudden demise.
That was before Zardari had decided to take on Musharraf head on, though the timing of his attack is extremely important and meaningful. Coming under fire from many sides, he has practically thwarted any criticism of his hitherto pro-Musharraf policies in the Central Executive Committee of the PPP, scheduled to meet on Saturday, as a starter. Many PPP stalwarts and quiet but annoyed leaders were sharpening their knives to go for him.
Secondly, he has attempted to control the damage caused by the fast deteriorating relations with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, to keep the coalition together and gear it up for the constitutional amendments that he intends to move, clipping Musharraf’s powers and restoring the judges.
But the most important reason according to my information is a lot of fear and apprehension that before his wings were clipped, Musharraf may launch a final commando type attack on the political system and try to pre-empt his ultimate transformation into a powerless and spineless Fazal Elahi Chaudhry.
One indication of this pre-emptive strike was given in an article in this newspaper by well-informed defence analyst Ikram Sehgal who wrote that Musharraf may be thinking of removing General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani and appointing his relative, ISI’s Nadeem Taj, as the next Chief of the Army Staff while he still had the power to do that.
When an official comment was sought on this sensitive issue from President Musharraf’s spokesman Rashid Qureshi, his standard answer to Ansar Abbasi of The News in Islamabad was: “I have no information and I have not even read Mr Ikram Sehgal’s article.”
Sehgal had called this info as “unsubstantiated rumours” and probably this is what it may be. According to my sources, clear messages have been sent to the presidency from the most relevant quarters that at this stage no disruption of the political process would be welcomed, though Musharraf may be itching to act against what he describes as total mismanagement of the economy and political turmoil after the elections.
The gist of these messages, some sources in the PPP say, have also been conveyed to Zardari and ever since his tone and tenor vis-à-vis Musharraf has changed.
Why Zardari picked up the Indian media to deliver this message is not clear but what is obvious is that he has been under tremendous pressure from within his party and the political spectrum outside to change the wishy-washy stance of the PPP concerning Pervez Musharraf and the judges as it was causing grave damage to the party and conversely consolidating Nawaz Sharif, who was looking like a seasoned and mature principled politician as compared to Zardari.
In the long run, this was not acceptable to the PPP leader. He was constantly absorbing the pressures even at the risk of becoming unpopular for a while because of obvious assurances and guarantees that Benazir Bhutto in the first place, and then he himself, may have given to the presidency, the Army and the Americans.
The smooth transition after the Feb 18 elections was also possible because both the sides were adhering to the secret understandings, especially Zardari, as he had to receive a lot more than he had to give in the short term.
The lingering threat of corruption and money laundering cases, both in and outside Pakistan, was another huge factor why Zardari was soft and accommodative for Musharraf.
All that may appear to have changed when the last and final corruption case against him was dropped or thrown out by the court hearing it. Now he is clean like any clean person could be and thus could go after anyone who challenges his authority.
But the real turning point came when Musharraf started to panic and sought tacit assurances from the powers that matter on whether they would stand by him or the political system. The answers that he got, again tacitly, was a big no, which meant that if the political system, through a proper and dignified way eliminated him, he would have to say goodbye.
That political system and the constitutional and political strategy of the PPP leader is to be tested in the coming weeks. With Musharraf fading out, he believes there would be no problem in mustering the two-thirds majority in both the houses but the key hurdle to cross would be Nawaz Sharif’s insistence that the deposed judges must be reinstated.
Zardari is almost sold out to the idea that if the sitting PCO judges cannot be retained after the restoration of the deposed ones, then all those who ever took oath on any PCO must be thrown out and a totally new judiciary be recruited, through a process of parliamentary scrutiny. This he calls the true spirit of the Charter of Democracy and says it will weed out all the unwanted judges, both who are liked or disliked by the PPP and the PML-N and give the judiciary a fresh start.
The only impediment in this very principled position is Mian Nawaz Sharif. But if, after taking on Musharraf and winning, Zardari insists, this may ultimately be the compromise solution which everyone may accept.
Courtesy: The News International, 24/5/2008