Islamabad diary: One game over, a new one begins

Ayaz Amir

Is this sad country fated never to know any peace? Is this what was written in its stars from the moment of its birth six decades ago? And is it part of its destiny to be always let down by those anointed as its leaders? Bitter questions dissolving into the darkness, but few answers forthcoming.

The euphoria at Generalissimo Pervez Musharraf’s long-prayed-for departure has hardly evaporated but with our well-honed talent for manufacturing crises we are already in the throes of inviting another crisis. The coalition partners had sworn that three days after the General’s departure the judges sacked on Nov 3, 2007, would be restored without any ifs and buts. They would be restored through a National Assembly resolution followed by an executive order. To obviate confusion or second thoughts this was put down in writing and both Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif put down their signatures to the document.

That was Aug 7 but today fresh doubts and a whole pack of equivocations have come pouring out of what was thought to be a sealed agreement. So much for the integrity on display in the stratosphere of whatever passes for our higher politics.

Zardari in private conversations has always made plain his aversion to the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Fine, he is entitled to his opinion. But the nation is also entitled to ask why he has been promising just the opposite, first in Murree, then in Dubai, then, on Aug 7, in Islamabad? Why has he been promising one thing if in his heart has lurked something else?

Maybe he is playing a hard game of poker, using the judges’ issue to extract concessions on some other issue. Maybe, maybe, but is this what the nation deserves, especially at this juncture when dark clouds line the horizon and the nation faces dangers without and is not at peace within? There is a time for card games and brinkmanship and bluffing, but this is not it. The people of Pakistan deserve better. They are crying for honest and bold leadership. What they are getting is charlatanism of the worst order.

Does Zardari want to be president? MQM chief Altaf Hussain, playing a devious game as only he can, has in a surprise statement proposed his name for president; and PPP circles, as if on cue, have erupted with the same slogan. Zardari and Altaf Hussain playing on the same wicket: makes one shiver. But if this is what Zardari wants to be, why this game of hide-and-seek? Why doesn’t he play it straight?

He is the head of the country’s largest party. If he wants to be president, it is a perfectly legitimate desire. But again the question, why this hide-and-seek? Are there fears lurking in his mind that his candidacy would not be taken kindly by vast sections of the Pakistani people, and perhaps even powerful sections of the establishment? Or does this fear arise from the widely-held perception that there are too many skeletons rattling in his cupboard? Is the judges’ issue being traded for his bid for the presidency?

Pity the simplicity of the Pakistani people who were being led to think that at this time of national peril, with the Northwest Frontier aflame and the country in distress on many counts, the leadership would rise to the occasion and nominate a widely-respected person as president. Pity this nation whose people have aspired for the stars but have found themselves flung time and again into the deepest pit.

The Pakistan People’s Party is the oldest of our present parties, with a long history of struggle to its credit. It was the party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later the party of his daughter, Benazir Bhutto. The PPP was born in 1967. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz came of age and became a mass party only in 1993 when Nawaz Sharif as prime minister stood up to that doyen of the Pakistani bureaucracy, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, then president of Pakistan. It was that act of defiance which enabled Nawaz Sharif to break free from his political origins as a child of the Zia regime.

Death is the greatest leveller of all and the way Benazir Bhutto met her death, at the hands of cold-blooded assassins, has dimmed the memory of some of the questionable things associated with her two stints as prime minister—just as Nawaz Sharif’s exile and uncompromising stand against Musharraf’s dictatorship has softened the memory of the shortcomings associated with his rule. But the point is that destiny, and not achievement, has made Zardari the custodian and leader of the PPP. If he went to prison it was not as a Mandela fighting for political freedom but as someone indicted on criminal charges.

That those charges came to nothing should surprise no student of Pakistani politics. Since when has anyone received his/her just deserts for corruption or criminal wrongdoing in this country? Vice and corruption at the top remain unpunished sins in Pakistan. Zardari received his blanket pardon at the hands of Musharraf through the ironically-titled National Reconciliation Ordinance. The PPP has already made known its intention to grant indemnity to Musharraf: a case of you rubbing my back and I rubbing yours. Both back-rubbing exercises enjoy American blessings, which gives us some idea of the sovereignty we exercise in our national affairs.

The PML-N is in a quandary. It doesn’t want to break up the coalition, knowing all too well that such a move would usher in a new era of political instability. At the same time it cannot afford more dilly-dallying on the judges’ issue, knowing that any more deadlines would damage its credibility. So decision time, one way or the other, has to come very soon (probably today) if the coalition is to be saved. All bets are on the two-man committee of Asfandyar Wali and Maulana Fazlur Rehman to break the deadlock and come up with a solution acceptable to all sides.

The deposed judges have waited for too long. So has the nation. The wait should now be over for this is one issue that has stretched for too long and can be pulled no further. We either have Chief Justice Chaudhry and his colleagues back or we plunge into another crisis.

Zardari has praised the MQM for its role in easing Musharraf’s exit. The MQM has played a smart game distancing itself from Musharraf – its benefactor these past nine years – at just the right time. And now it has taken the lead in proposing Zardari’s name as president. Not believing in free lunches, the MQM will extract its pound of flesh for these “services”. Let’s hope the PPP, and by extension the country, can carry this burden.

The Q League, Musharraf’s chosen political instrument, is going the way of all manufactured parties, well on its way to splintering into different factions. A hard core of Musharraf supporters remains but ‘forward blocs’ have emerged in both the National Assembly and the Punjab assembly. A group of Q League MNAs has met Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. In Punjab a sizeable ‘forward bloc’ is supporting Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

Meanwhile, we can all take note of the fact that while faces have changed and a wave of jubilation has swept the country, the substance of policy remains the same. In American eyes Musharraf’s principal virtue was that he was pro-American, staunch and often unthinking guardian of American interests in this part of the world. The new setup – from Zardari and Yusuf Raza Gilani to Rehman Malik and the foreign minister, down to our man in Washington – is as America-inclined as anything Musharraf could offer.

The United States can thus congratulate itself on a smooth transition from a dictator and military man who had outlived his utility to a civilian set-up following the same policies but enjoying popular support.

Musharraf’s unpopularity was hindering the “war on terror”. The Americans think that the popular base of the new arrangement in Pakistan will facilitate the “war on terror”. This is where the rub lies. The American-imposed “war on terror” has brought nothing but misery for Pakistan. Terrorism, instead of being contained or eradicated, has spread and now threatens to spread deeper into Pakistan. We need to rethink this war and the philosophy underpinning it, but this revision won’t happen under the new order of things emerging in Pakistan.


Courtesy: The News, 22/8/2008

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