Time to fight, time to unite- by Ikram Sehgal

Asif Ali Zardari has been sworn in as president. There is no better news for the federation than the active participation of all its units in voting for their preferred candidate with a virtual landslide. In three provinces, he almost blanked out his worthy opponents and in Punjab he got a substantial number of votes. The first phase of the amazing political journey that started on Dec 27, 2007 is now over.

Asif Zardari deserves congratulations for a stunning performance and spectacular achievement. He deserves our support in undertaking what promises to be a herculean task and he deserves our sympathies for being thrust, albeit by his own choice, into a horrendous multi-dimensional situation, not of his making but for which the buck now stops firmly on his desk. We wanted him to come out of the shadows and take responsibility for his actions by being elected, he has done so. Whatever reservations one may have had prior to Sep 6 must now be a thing of the past!

To quote from my article on March 6, 2008,” What a revelation Asif Zardari has turned out to be. One had written him off as a dilettante lightweight interested only in making money, mostly for himself and his friends. To his credit he suffered captivity (1997-2004) with grace and good humour, and did not sign off any deal for his freedom. After Mohtarma Benazir’s assassination he has emerged as a pillar of the federal structure, swiftly and firmly stamping out the fires of secession that flared on the long night of Dec 27, 2007. It is an irony of fate that the unity of Pakistan now depends upon the maturity of this much vilified person. Cautious but constant in trying to accommodate all democratic forces, he has shunned the rhetoric of virulent hatred and vengeance one is used to in Pakistani politics. Eight long years in jail have done him a world of good, could this be the recommended dose for all our budding leaders, the missing factor in developing their character profile? While the jury is still out, signs are that Zardari’s initiatives are genuine and will succeed, that his politics of compromise could well persuade Mian Nawaz Sharif to abandon his politics of confrontation”.

So far, and including the presidential elections, the democratic process has been well contested, as it should be. One marked change from the past is that there is no electoral protest about the sanctity of the ballot except the few unfortunate cases of “display” in Peshawar. Turning the split verdict in the electorate of Feb 18 into a huge mandate in the electoral college was pure political genius. And how was this possible? By relentlessly pursuing a course for national reconciliation he shored up his base. Well aware that his coalition partner but ideological opposite, Mian Nawaz Sharif, had boxed himself into a corner over the person of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and was bound to split with him, he cajoled the MQM and the ANP (and later the JUI-F)) to come together under his roof.

While in principle one accepts that the superior judiciary must be restored, in contrast to media-created projections and perceptions it did not have priority in the eyes of either the electorate or the electoral college. The voting for the presidential elections virtually became a vote of confidence of sorts for the PPP. To quote my article of Apr 25, 2008: “There is a time for politicking and a time for governance. One cannot be permanently on a campaign trail, there must be a transition from politicking to providing good governance. Our leaders must put substance before rhetoric, national necessity before personal ambition. Posturing and political drama for advantage is the stuff of nonsense, we owe it to the poorest of the poor to curb our prejudices and our individual ambitions for the greater national good. Our leaders have to show political maturity and bite the bullet. Otherwise, ground realities will make them bite the dust. The poor of Pakistan should not have to swallow the dust, without water, because of the inadequacies and shortcomings of our leaders”.

The economic situation has gone from bad to worse to awful. The Pakistani rupee has depreciated more than 25 per cent against foreign currencies and inflation is officially above 30 per cent. There may be food to buy, it will be beyond the reach of the common man to put it on the table for his family. This may give rise to mass unrest. One seriously gave thought that in the absence of political compromise there was only one solution to save the country, a “Pakistan model” refined from the present Bangladesh one in which the army remains in the background but supports a consensus civilian setup composed of both politicians and technocrats to deal with the horrible economic situation.

Now that Kayani and company have satisfied themselves about national security concerns, particularly the presidential finger on the nuclear trigger, what we have in place is a far better model, a strong democratic setup with the army’s full support in its actual constitutional role. To quote my article of Feb 28, 2008, “When Mian Nawaz Sharif’s says that the army should not get involved with politics in the country he is quite right, the army has no business being involved with either politics – or for that matter, business. So in the same manner, the politicians have no business interfering in the inner working of the military. Given his history of confrontation with army chiefs, Mian Sahib’s stance towards the army must remain a matter of ambiguity. One feels Zardari will take the middle ground of risking 1988 all over, a PPP-led coalition without the PML-N of the federal level, conceding Punjab to the PML-N despite the bitterness of PPP activists in the province. While political initiatives must go hand in hand with military ones to root out the menace of terrorism, this country badly needs a united stand to meet serious economic challenges looming in the near future. That is only possible by having a national unity government”. Democracy must now get on with providing solutions to the many issues threatening to run out of control.

Mian Nawaz Sharif set an excellent precedent by congratulating Asif Zardari in person. Salmaan Taseer has been made to tone down his strident rhetoric. While an apposition is the requirement of democracy, this is the first time after 1973 that the politicians are at least being civil and talking to each other, not being held hostage to personal motivations or ego trips. Confrontation must give way to good governance. to quote my article of May 8, 2008, “National reconciliation is the need of the hour to meet the multi-faceted multi-dimensional challenges. In the approaching economic crisis and food shortages, the poor and impoverished are in imminent danger. Pakistanis must circle the wagons to present a united front against adversity approaching us, steadily and surely”.

For the sake of Pakistan we must circle the wagons behind President Asif Ali Zardari! There was a time to fight, now is the time to unite.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email: isehgal@pathfinder9.com

The News, 11/9/2008


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