As Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani asserts his authority, President Asif Zardari can be forgiven for regretting why he became president instead of prime minister, the real fount of authority in a parliamentary democracy. But then he thought he was being smart and over-cleverness in small matters (and folly in large ones) has always been the bane of our national life.
Swept by over-confidence he said he would continue to teach politics to the Sharifs. Now he is being given a lesson in politics by his handpicked prime minister.
Gilani was appointed because it was thought he would be his master’s voice, implementing orders issuing from the Presidency. In the beginning it seemed to be the right choice, Gilani being lampooned as a make-believe prime minister. But as time passes it is turning out differently, Gilani coming into his own. It would be very surprising if Zardari and his circle of cronies/loyalists are not disturbed. At the centre the PPP government is rightly being accused of incompetence and dithering. But is leadership coming from any other direction?
The army, Pakistan’s option of last resort, seems lost, putting on a brave front but knowing inwardly that its operations in Swat and FATA have been unmitigated disasters. Nothing coming from the army suggests it has any idea of how to retrieve this situation.
In Iraq, General David Petraeus, now Centcom chief, is being credited with turning the situation around in the most insurgency-hit regions of the country. A Pakistani Petraeus has yet to emerge in our local killing fields. Who are the commanding officers in FATA and Swat? Given the deliberately-induced fog surrounding military operations there, it is not surprising if the public at large has no idea who they might be.
Our troops in FATA and Swat face a tough challenge. They have lost the initiative and are on the defensive. They deserve popular support. But it would help if army headquarters were a bit more open about what is happening in those embattled areas and, more importantly, if the question of public anger caused by indiscriminate damage to public life and property during the course of military operations was suitably addressed. The battle for hearts and minds is clearly not being won.
At the same time the army should not get the feeling that it has been left on its own. President, prime minister, parliamentarians and those politicos given to issuing press statements should be visiting troops on the frontline. Needless to say, the same holds true for self-righteous pundits.
The PML-N is the alternative to the PPP, with a stake in the present dispensation because of its government in Punjab, the country’s largest province and the source of much of Pakistan’s anguish since the country’s birth. What is it up to?
Exile and the long night of the Musharraf era should have tempered the PML-N leadership, taught it a measure of wisdom and enabled it to see the larger canvas instead of just the trees. It is a moot point whether any of this has happened because the party or rather its leadership has not been able to get over the well-ingrained tendency of tilting at windmills — imagining them to be monsters on the horizon but which turn out to be windmills.
It has espoused the lawyers’ cause and the cause of the restoration of the judges deposed by Gen Pervez Musharraf. But espousing a cause is one thing, strangling oneself with it quite another. The PML-N has tightly tied the judges’ issue round its neck, to the extent where it seems that it only has a one-point agenda.
Impulsive as ever, the party has declared support for the lawyers’ long march and the sit-in in front of the Supreme Court on March 9. Several questions arise. Will the agitating lawyers be able to attract a large enough crowd to force the government’s hand? And is the government likely to capitulate — for the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry and the other deposed judges would amount to capitulation — before the lawyers? Failure on these counts would rub off on the PML-N. Its public standing would be diminished.
In Punjab we are seeing a somewhat curious phenomenon at work: the chief secretary assuming the role of overseeing politico, visiting divisions and districts, with a bevy of provincial secretaries in tow, inspecting line departments and ordering the establishment of new model schools, etc.
No doubt these tasks need to be performed. The only question is by whom: bureaucrats or elected officials? And if it is thought that bureaucrats can do this job better, why not carry the argument to its logical conclusion and call upon the chief secretary and his army of minions to mobilise people for the long march?
Pakistan as a whole got over its romance with the higher civil services in the 1970 elections, during which the deputy commissioner and the district superintendent of police were objects of popular hatred. For some reason yet to be adequately plumbed, this romance, long since buried elsewhere, comes alive whenever the redoubtable Shahbaz Sharif —in the eyes of some though, regretfully, not all, a super-administrator — comes to power in Punjab.
As a politician with popular backing, the sources of his power are the people and his party, the PML-N. But his heart seems to lie somewhere in the Punjab secretariat.
Pakistan’s failure is ultimately Punjab’s failure because Punjab — for reasons of size, strength and resources — must carry the burden of the country’s governance. If Pakistan fails in any sphere, the failure in large measure is Punjab’s. The party of Punjab is the PML-N but for Pakistan’s sake the PML-N’s vision must transcend Punjab and the narrow vision for which Punjab has been famous, and for which it has been justly blamed, since 1947.
The people of Punjab delivered a fractured mandate on Feb 18, 2008. The PML-N emerged as the largest party but the PPP too won a sizeable number of seats in the provincial assembly. Both together had a commanding majority. If that mandate is now to be hijacked by the likes of Salmaan Taseer (someone with deep pockets but no political standing) and Pervaiz Elahi and talented scion, Moonis Elahi (who were almost objects of popular ridicule in the Feb 2008 elections), then there is something seriously wrong with the political course pursued by the two major parties since the Feb 18 elections. Things should not have been allowed to come to such a pass.
But the future belongs to the PML-N, I can hear a hundred thousand PML-N activists say. The future belongs to no one. This at least is what Pakistan’s history tells us. Ayub, Bhutto, Zia, Musharraf, even Nawaz Sharif with his two-thirds majority in 1997, all thought they were politically immortal. What happened to them?
It is not wise to take too much for granted. The next elections are not about to take place tomorrow. In any event, who can safely predict the course of Pakistani politics?
Upon the shoulders of three forces fell the burden of history in 1970: the Awami League, the PPP and the army. All three were not up to the challenge they faced. All three failed Pakistan. In what must be taken as their personal tragedies, Mujib and Bhutto came to sorry ends. The army in the intervening years has also done not too well.
It is all too easy to brandish the phrase ‘existential threat’. But in Pakistan’s case it is not an empty cliché. Pakistan faced an existential threat in 1970. It faces a similar threat in 2009. On the shoulders of another troika falls the burden of history this time: PPP, PML-N and the army.
1970 was easier in that after defeat in East Pakistan the battered spirit and soul of the idea of Pakistan had somewhere to retreat to, a place where it could rest and lick its wounds after its tormented journey: West Pakistan. But if today the fire burning in our north and northwest were to spread, where would the battered soul of Pakistan go?
If the issues facing Pakistan are grave, far more serious than they have ever been before, the response coming from our political or governing class is puny by comparison, characterised by a poverty of will, imagination and intellect. What greater pity if at this juncture this is all that Pakistan’s collective leadership has to offer?