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Islamabad diary: A second Junejo in the making?

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Ayaz Amir
Junejo in the Pakistani context is a metaphor for prime ministers chosen for their perceived pliability but who turn out differently. They are chosen for docility not anything so bizarre as competence. But they are driven by circumstances, or some hitherto undetected trait of character, to violate the script written for them.

Yousuf Raza Gilani was chosen prime minister because he was sufficiently tame and nondescript, someone expected to dance to any tune set for him. Initially he lived up to expectations, chief executive only in name, real power in the hands of Asif Ali Zardari who took all the decisions, first from Zardari House, then the Presidency.

But Zardari perhaps overreached himself or he did not know where to draw the line. He behaved too much like a king-emperor without the experience, the background or the mental capacity for this role. When he took on too much on himself his inadequacy began to show. And people began to talk, first in murmurs, then more loudly. For the emperor in all his majesty was well and truly without his clothes.

Somewhere in this twilight zone betwixt darkness and light, Gilani began to show a streak of independence no one would have suspected him of possessing. To the annoyance of the Presidency, a sentiment now resembling something close to rage, Gilani began to assert himself, getting rid of his principal secretary, Siraj Shamsuddin, someone considered close to Zardari, and making some other key appointments reportedly without clearance from the Presidency. Islamabad began to circulate with rumours that all was not well between the president and his handpicked prime minister.

But the sacking of the national security adviser, Maj-Gen (retd) Mahmud Ali Durrani, has brought this simmering discontent into the open, leaving nothing to the imagination. While speaking to an Indian TV channel, Durrani said that Ajmal Kasab, the lone Mumbai gunman in Indian custody, was a Pakistani national. The prime minister was livid because he had not been taken into confidence. Without consulting President Zardari he ordered Durrani’s sacking. I have it on good authority that Zardari called Durrani and apologised to him over the manner of his dismissal. But the point remains that he could do nothing about it.

Durrani of course thinks he was in the right. Again on good authority I have it that he had cleared the matter regarding Kasab’s nationality with the ISI chief, Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who said he had cleared it with the president. But Durrani was forgetting two minor details: (1) he was NSA to the prime minister, not the president; and (2) Gillani, miffed at being taken for granted, was in no mood to remain a doormat for the Presidency.

Durrani is a pleasant person to talk to. He was Gen Jahangir Karamat’s batch mate in the PMA, winning the Sword of Honour. Very close to Pervez Musharraf, it was at Musharraf’s asking that he went as ambassador to Washington. But when Musharraf’s impeachment drama began, it was Durrani, at Zardari’s behest, who went to tell Musharraf that the national interest – what else? – dictated that he quit. It is not hard to imagine what must have flitted through Musharraf’s mind: et tu Brute?

But more than his Sword of Honour or his ambassadorship, Durrani is likely to go down in history’s footnotes – where most of us belong – as the man whose fall came to highlight the growing gap between Zardari and Gilani, a gap whose emergence shows history repeating itself.

General Ziaul Haq chose Mohammad Khan Junejo as his prime minister in March 1985 on the recommendation of the Pir of Pagaro and on the assumption that Junejo, who was not much of a political figure, would be his most obedient servant. Imagine his surprise when at their first meeting Junejo pointedly asked him when he proposed lifting martial law.

To Zia’s further astonishment Junejo took himself seriously as chief executive, deciding things for himself and not even taking Zia’s wishes into account when it came to signing the Geneva Accords (which paved the way for the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan). During the 1986 budget session Junejo said that government officials would use small cars and even generals would be put in Suzukis, a remark which caused consternation in military circles.

By 1988 Zia had had enough. Removing Junejo was not easy because the National Assembly would not have approved. So Zia sacked the National Assembly, thus effectively putting an axe to his own feet. The 1985 National Assembly was his creation. Its dismissal exhausted his political options.

Junejo thus is the great unsung hero of Pakistani democracy. Benazir Bhutto, it is true, symbolised opposition to Zia’s rule but Zia’s real undermining took place at the hands of Junejo.

Musharraf was careful not to commit Zia’s mistake. He kept his prime ministers – three of them to Zia’s one – on a short leash, not giving them the space Junejo had managed to carve out for himself. He also remained a hands-on president, using his uniform to impose his will upon his political lackeys.

But he was also lucky in the sense that his appointee was Zafarullah Khan Jamali, who had it not in him to become another Junejo. In good time Jamali too was shown the door but this was because he was seen as an ineffective figure, not because he had declared his independence.

As a stopgap measure, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of Musharraf’s Q (Quisling?) League, was made prime minister for 45 days before being replaced by Shaukat Aziz. Shujaat would have dearly liked to stay on but despite his tough talk nowadays and his attempts to distance himself from Musharraf, when it mattered he had not the guts to stand up to Musharraf and insist on his claim to the prime ministership.

As for Shaukat Aziz, standing up to Musharraf was no part of his agenda. He helped himself to what he could and sold an impression of economic wizardry when in fact he was sowing the seeds of economic disaster. When the sun was about to set on the Musharraf order he was smart enough to make a quick exit. Shortcut Aziz was the sobriquet his countrymen gave him. To the last he lived up to it.

Musharraf was also undermined but not by a prime minister. His nemesis was an obstreperous chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, and the lawyers’ movement which arose from Iftikhar Chaudhry’s defiance of Musharraf. When his power was weakened even his American patrons came round to the opinion that he was a spent force and that American interests were better protected by a change of face.

The change was meant to be Benazir Bhutto but fate determined otherwise. The pantheon of Pakistani rulers contains some strange figures but none stranger than Asif Zardari. Who in his wildest imagination could have thought he could be president? But it has come to pass and we must live with the consequences.

At the same time we have to give full marks to the creativity of Pakistani politics. Just when it appeared that the cup of despair was running over and Zardari was not only unstoppable but was wildly expanding his power, out of the blue, when least expected, emerges an unlikely counterweight from within his own ranks. If Zardari as president is surprising, Gilani beginning to act independently is no less surprising. Indeed, the two surprises are of equal intensity.

There is also a vital difference with Junejo. Junejo was someone about whom no stories were heard. The same perhaps cannot be said of Gilani. Islamabad is a city which has always thrived on exaggeration. Maybe this is what we are witnessing in Gilani’s case, although cynics will say, as is their custom, that where there’s smoke there’s usually a fire. But if despite this Gilani is beginning to stand up to Zardari, it is a measure not of Gilani’s growing power but Zardari’s gathering weakness.

Gilani cannot be shown the door by Zardari as Jamali was by Musharraf because Gilani will have support, and more of it if put to the test, from across the political divide in the National Assembly. The PPP parliamentary party will not rise up against Zardari. This is a foolish dream. But it will not pull down Gilani. Sacking the National Assembly is no option because that would plunge the country into turmoil and end Zardari’s political career.

So he must put up with Gilani as best he can. He has amassed a great deal of power but this is about it. Limitless ambition is a bad thing, undeserved ambition even more so. And let’s not forget the ace up Gilani’s sleeve. If pushed too far he has only to say it on the floor of the National Assembly and it will be curtains for the Dogar Supreme Court. Provided of course Gilani doesn’t lose heart and has the sense to understand the position of strength in which events unwittingly have placed him.

Source: The News, 10th January, 2009


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