First among equals —Munir Attaullah

The ancient Roman republican concept of a primus inter pares — a first among equals — is a noble and subtle political idea. It recognises the necessity, in human affairs, of having an ultimate decision maker, even as it reminds that person where the buck stops, of his limitations, and the value and need for consensus building

Far away from the hurly-burly of Islamabad, in a distant land, I have the luxury to contemplate in solitude the news from home of the PPP-PMLN split. For, here, I divide my time between following media reports on our unfolding political drama, and lounging by the poolside (doing all what one dreams of doing there), in glorious weather that, I assume, what Heaven is partly about.

And, all that lounging about, trying to digest the latest news has — for two reasons — ended up producing this column. The ostensibly serious reason has something to do with my stubbornly held view that very little, if anything, is that sacrosanct or settled that it does not bear rethinking about (even though a given re-examination may not result in any advance).

The other, somewhat flippant, reason should be obvious. A veil must be drawn on my other activities here, for going public runs the serious risk of inviting an unwelcome backlash from certain quarters in the Land of the Pure.

That last sentence invites my usual aside. Why is it that this section of our populace does not believe in civilised muzakirat whenever their amusingly delicate sensibilities and finely honed prejudices are in the slightest bit disturbed? Why are they so quick to declare people wajib-ul-qatl for simply holding an opinion or voicing it; and are ever ready to kill in the dubious name of honour? And yet, when it comes to those who pick up a gun to impose their obscurantist agendas on a hapless and unwilling populace, they suggest muzakirat?

The digression over, let me return to the political developments. For, with the inevitable exit of the President, and the less inevitable but always likely parting of ways between the PPP and the PMLN, the curtain has fallen on the latest act of our unending political drama.

What can we expect now?

It is back to, I am afraid, realpolitik; that which can seldom be denied for long, no matter how many fond — and false — hopes the clueless believers in ‘principled politics’ invest in their political dreams. It is time to cobble together new political partnerships. The proponents of the asooli mauqifs have discovered (to their cost?) that the cool, calm, patient, practical, and astute Mr Zardari is no political novice and pushover, and cannot be railroaded as easily as they thought: If they had thought their asooli mauqifs were an irresistible force, Mr Zardari has proved to be an immovable object.

Whether it is relevant here to remind readers of the history of those who are the new and vociferous defenders of the rule of law, and the inviolability of formal political/written commitments, I cannot say. For, among the many other well known U-turns (ah! that marvellously evocative phrase!), Qazi sahib wistfully reminded us only yesterday how Mr Sharif had once publicly committed not to participate in the last election. And why remind readers of the fate of those solemn undertakings (written ones?) under which Mr Sharif had once left the country?

Moreover, I know of many who became ‘born again’ Muslims after years — even decades — of grossly no-no activities. So, let us, therefore, take the ‘conversion’ at face value, say Ameen, and get on with real life.

Because, what is really relevant is that in playing to the gallery, the PMLN had, wantonly and quite recklessly, got so carried away and gone so far out on a limb as to make it impossible for it to retreat an inch without making a public laughing stock of itself.

The real point — the one we should fear — is that Mr Nawaz Sharif’s old Punjabi hormonal propensities for confrontation, quick and ill thought out ‘solutions’, and massive risk taking, seem to be still very much alive and kicking. Not for nothing did many, myself included, always had serious doubts about the long term viability of a Nawaz-Zardari partnership.

Indeed, over the years, in a number of columns (e.g. in ‘Political Re-alignments’, last summer), I have often argued that the ‘natural’ political divide in Pakistan is between the centrist and left leaning parties such as the PPP, the MQM, the ANP, and the ‘progressive’ elements within the PMLQ on one side, and the right-wing conservative elements composed of the PMLN, the majority of the PMLQ and the religious parties on the other side.

I further argued then that, as it was reality that the army will remain a powerful political force for some time to come, the country’s immediate best hope for a stable and forward- (and, equally important, outward-) looking government, was a covert partnership between the army and the progressive and practical political forces.

For, the world has long given up ideological politics. Until some three decades ago, that was the preserve of the Left, while the Right was the one concerned with bread and butter issues. Those roles stand reversed today, and the modern right-wing ideologues are even more dangerous than their former counterparts on the other side of the political divide.

So I am not unhappy that the political battle lines have now been clearly demarcated. It should help focus the minds and energies of the progressive elements on the need for unity in their ranks if the political battle against the ideologues is to be fought successfully.

It did not have to end this way, of course. For the issue of the judges was not a life or death matter for the country, no matter what some would have us believe. The coalition could have continued, with the PMLN occupying an honourable and powerful position at the high table. And, in due course, surely Mr Sharif would have had his opportunity to bid — very probably, successfully — for the highest prize.

The ancient Roman republican concept of a primus inter pares — a first among equals — is a noble and subtle political idea. It recognises the necessity, in human affairs, of having an ultimate decision maker, even as it reminds that person where the buck stops, of his limitations, and the value and need for consensus building. The concept allowed a Gordon Brown to work patiently alongside a Tony Blair, awaiting his time, but recognising meanwhile that there can only be one numero uno or a capo tutti capi.

We, of course, are — and let us not mince words — political savages. Mr Sharif thought he had a win-win strategy. But an astute Mr Zardari, displaying greater political nous, has, patiently and without fanfare, gone about his business; quietly acquiescing to and harnessing for himself those parts of Mr Sharif’s strategy that suited him, and ended up — or so it seems — completely turning the tables on the PMLN and increasing his share of power.

The problem with the politics of threats and ultimatums is that sometimes your bluff will be called in an entirely unexpected way.

The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit

Courtesy: daily times, 27/8/2008

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