Pakistan Politics: A silver lining in the looming dark clouds

By Shaheen Sehbai

ISLAMABAD: Whatever the cronies and defeated politicians, who still support President Pervez Musharraf, may wishfully pronounce on live television, or whatever the retired general may claim about his old constituency, the power corridors of Islamabad and Rawalpindi that matter are absolutely unmoved about the political situation everyone is cribbing about.

On the contrary, there is a growing confidence, and a desire, that the political process must not only continue undisturbed but it should become more assertive, take more responsibility, make some badly-needed difficult choices and even own some of the bitter decisions of the past.

This assessment, made after talking to a number of critical stakeholders and power brokers, does not, however, absolve the present political leadership of a massive failure in appearing serious, or even capable, of governance, let alone good governance.

Yet the feeling of frustration and utter disappointment in the political circles, the media and the masses, basically arising out of the state of inertia and lack of confidence shown by the political leadership in moving the democratic process forward, is not being shared, may be for the time being, by the most powerful partner of the troika, so to say.

There is, in fact, a determined will and even a quiet, persuasive and persistent effort to make the political players realise that they have to take charge of the situation, develop national policies, put their heads together and chalk out plans and strategies, which the other arms of the state are ready to implement without any questions asked.

The effort is to let the elected representatives come up with solutions, which they should own, instead of throwing back the ball in the court of implementing agencies, as was recently done after a full briefing to the entire political leadership in case of the operations in the Khyber Agency and the NWFP.

The bottom lines and the red lines on each issue, with clearly defined pros and cons, are being explained to political leaders but there is a decision in principle that any option adopted by the political government would be accepted and fully implemented, as it may be ordered, with whatever consequences.

Having said all that, though key players are not prepared to come on record or discuss in detail the available options on internal terrorism, economic revival, national integration and the American war against terror (read Pakistan), besides other important domestic issues, they expect the political leadership to rise to the occasion and start governing, sooner the better.

But to be fair, there is no sense of desperation or restlessness, which may pose even a far-fetched threat to the system.

These power circles, especially of the khaki kind, are more worried about the threat to the country from the Western borders as much as from ‘internal terrorism’, a term which is being repeated with increasing emphasis because it is a considered view that redefining the ‘global’ war on terror is critical if a national consensus is to be built to fight this internal threat.

Fighting the global war on terror is taken by all and sundry as fighting the American war and it is, and it is rightly considered, as a deeply divisive issue instead of the terrorism unleashed by our own people within our own society.

But while a consensus needs to be built on fighting internal terrorism, there is a more urgent need to build a national consensus on the American designs on Pakistan, especially in the dying days and weeks of the Bush presidency, desperately in need of some high value military success to boost the party’s election prospects in November.

As the US strategy and tactics get aggressive, Pakistanis at all levels, political and military, have been advising caution and even pointing out at the basic faults in the US strategic thinking in dealing with the region, specially Afghanistan, but there is no receptive ear in the dead, or dying, Republican Washington DC.

Since that thinking is not going to change and will get more offensive, Pakistani strategic thinkers are preparing for the US onslaught. There is a talk of what leverage Pakistan has if the US military strikes get nasty in Fata, thus causing a massive public uproar within the country. There is mention of the 90,000 US containers which cross Pakistani territory every year to provide supplies, arms and ammunition to the Nato alliance, which is then used against Pakistan.

There is a serious effort to redefine military cooperation and its rules of engagement and reimbursements as Pakistan Army specifically has been made a target of smear campaigns by the US media and Congressional quarters over the Coalition Support Fund, a hefty US$8 billion which came to Islamabad over the years.

But while all this is happening at a particular operational level, the biggest missing factor is the appearance of an effective political government in Islamabad, which can move on from the issues it has been bogged down for months without any result.

The main responsibility of this state of affairs rests with the PPP and its leader Asif Ali Zardari, who has astounded his critics, and supporters, by adopting an almost irresponsible attitude, for reasons not yet known publicly, though there is a lot of talk and buzz that he was having some serious intra-family problems, specially with his own children in Dubai.

In his current visit, he took both his sisters Faryal and Azra, which was seen as a sign that he needed family help. But while he may be having very genuine family matters to deal with, the matters of the state cannot wait indefinitely, more so because in his style of governance, Zardari has kept all the key powers to himself and the prime minister is but a postman.

This deadlock has to end quickly and both Asif and Nawaz Sharif have to get over the pending issues of the judges and President Musharraf to come to grips with the real threats to the country.

Mr Musharraf has to be blamed a lot for this continuing uncertainty as he did not have the grace to admit that he was now a problem and the sooner he got out of the way, the easier it may be for the country’s political system to settle down.

He has uselessly wasted his time and energy to hang on to a broken branch, which may snap at any moment but in the process he has dragged the system down and consumed whatever positive momentum the new government had to tackle major issues.

But given his state of mind, no one should have expected him to show grace and should have been booted out earlier. According to all the signals emanating from his old constituency, there would not have been a single soul worried about his departure had it been done properly and quickly. Even now, no tears would be shed if a surgical operation gets him going out of the country, or in a safe house within.

A greater responsibility also rests with Mian Nawaz Sharif, who has been consistent in his positions but has failed to take political decisions in line with that position to let the system move on.

He fears that if he breaks the coalition, the system will go down. This is absolutely not the case and no one in any power corridor can think, or is thinking, of disrupting this set-up and bringing in anything wild like the Bangladesh option or a replica of the 1999 Musharraf coup.

In fact, when at an important sitting the Bangladesh option was mentioned, there was a derisive shaking of heads with someone pointing out that the stupid option had actually been exported by Islamabad to Dhaka, so how it could be of any good for us?

So there is no reason for Nawaz Sharif to stick around in the coalition waiting for something to happen or Mr Zardari to change his mind. That will not happen, so Mr Sharif should quickly move out declaring that he would never let the PPP government fall but would sit in the opposition and keep making efforts for an independent judiciary until the political parties go back to the electorate for another election and get a mandate.

If he gets that, he can restore the judges and vindicate himself. The bottom line for him should be that he would not let the system go down, but the PPP should rule, even as a minority government, until the next election, whether mid-term or after five years. He should concentrate on the Punjab in the meanwhile.

For the PPP, the only option left is for Zardari to come back to Pakistan, if he can get over his family problems quickly. He must head for the PM House, get himself elected and assume the charge as PM because Yousuf Raza Gilani cannot deliver anything nor can he be blamed for not doing so.

Gilani should, in the meantime, cancel his upcoming visit to Washington as a dummy meeting another lame duck would bring no positive change for either of them but a lot of money and time would be wasted.

Source: The News, 13/7/2008

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