By Mohammad Malick
The capital is abuzz with many imponderables, a mix of hard facts, soft hopes, and wishful rumours emanating from the much-delayed Friday afternoon meetings between members of the troika, the prime minister, the president and the Army chief.
But the latest leaks coming out of the Presidency and the government camp are that Zardari is adamant and none of the interventions by the Army chief have produced a softening effect. In fact, the attitudes have hardened and the media crackdown is one manifestation of the president digging in for a hard fight.
Some reports even suggested that the Presidency was in fact asking the Khakis to help them in crushing the long march and specifically use the 111 Brigade, which at normal times have always been used to remove those sitting in the Presidency or the PM House. It could be a dangerous move to ask the feared brigade out on the streets at this time, some observers believe.
However, official circles kept insisting that the government had made no request for the use of the 111 Brigade to put down the long march.
Answers are being sought to three inter-linked questions: Will the prime minister be able to “convince” the president into taking a step back from the precipice of total disaster? And if he fails, then will the PM do the needful all by himself? And if the PM does go the whole hog alone, then what would be the future of the PPP politics and of course of the president himself?
Being the extremely cautious man and a habitual survivor that he is, this prime minister needed a lot more goading than mere encouraging innuendos and tacit understandings extended by the Rawalpindi folks.
All cards had to be put flat out on his table with categorical assurances about his own continuity, and we’re not talking political support of the PML-N and others here but the one that remains the real guarantee in Pakistan.
While larger truths will take their time coming out, little details about the PM finally getting into action mode have started to trickle out. The prime minister personally talked to a couple of very important allied party leaders on Friday morning and requested them to stay on the standby for a critical meeting on an hour’s notice max. For one leader, at least, who was out of Islamabad at the time, provisions were immediately made to chopper him into town if and so required.
Talking of strategic assurances, it was only a matter of time before the Chief of the Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was forced to assume a prominent “publicly visible” role (meeting the PM twice and the president once within a 24-hour span) to send unmistakable signals both to the restive general public, and to a belligerent presidential palace.
For it was in his previous role as the then DG ISI that he was more than a mere witness to all the deals and negotiations involving Benazir Bhutto, Gen Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif and the top leaderships of the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Anything but a secretive fly on the wall, the DG ISI surely also played the role of an interlocutor then and when the time came (as in the present situation), he was preordained to act the enforcer of the covenants made, and understandings reached way back then and brokered by some very serious global power players.
It would also be naive to assume that it was by sheer chance that for the first time ever an incumbent intelligence chief was elevated to the post of the COAS. It was a clear signal of ensuring the element of continuity in a fast changing and uncertain situation which was bound to witness many more unforeseen twists and turns, as also turned out to be the case. The Khaki claim of neutrality notwithstanding, the fact remains that the Army could not have stayed politically aloof from the fate of a political dispensation it had itself helped create in the first place, and now just two years down the road it is faced with the harrowing prospect of having to pick up the pieces were it all to go up in the smoke due to a vain act of individual intransigence.
On the other side, however, the presidential camp still does not feel to have run out of options. Conveniently, the present crisis is being attributed to the issue of the reappointment of Justice Chaudhry alone, completely missing the point that the causes are many more, including the critical public and institutional perception of the need to ‘rationalise’ the influence and the day-to-day management role of the Presidency. The latest gem of an advice being seriously pondered is the enmasse sacking of all the PCO judges in “keeping with the COD spirit”, was how it was put by one supporter of this outlandish idea.
The logic is simple: with one stroke, all the PCO judges go home and this automatically includes Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. And once that happens, it is being reasoned, the agitating lawyers and the PML-N would be robbed of their moral locus standi at least and would have a harder public opinion case to plead for a specific exemption for just one individual from this erstwhile demanded prohibition. It would also offer the president and co an opportunity to stuff the suddenly created massive judicial vacuum with handpicked cronies. Mr President haven’t you had enough listening to such advisers?
President Zardari is at the pinnacle of his political zenith. He is the most constitutionally-empowered president ever. He is the co-chairman of the largest political party, with his son the chairperson and his sister the head of the women and youth wings. He has handpicked his prime minister, the National Assembly speaker, the chairman Senate, and just in case things were to go awry even has his preferred choice of a Supreme Court chief justice. The upside is that he is about as powerful as you can ever get, and the downside is that he is perched at a point where the only way left to go is down.
And while all powers may reside with the president for now, his ability to actually use them stands critically curtailed.
With the ground realities changing faster than anyone could have predicted and the silent powers no longer staying so silent anymore, the Presidency would have to change its style and agree to an existence of lesser clout and greatly curtailed administrative authority but if it decides to go for a winner takes all confrontation, he may lose it all. In such an unfortunate scenario, the consequences could be very unpleasant for the president because right now he does stand on the wrong side of both the public opinion and moral propriety.
The picture emerging from background interviews with highly informed sources clearly indicates that the Army neither has the desire nor any intent to step in now, or in the near future. But having said that, the convergence of our own national priorities and that of other major powers in the region does not anymore allow the luxury of its staying conveniently aloof either. The Army wants both the president and the prime minister to continue in their office but within constitutionally designated limitations and the same would apply on the country’s judicial overlords as well.
Reportedly, a simple but really no choice take-it-all-or-leave-it solution has been offered for presidential consideration: lift governor’s rule, sack Governor Taseer, let PML-N form its government in the Punjab and allow reinstatement of Justice Chaudhry.
It had long been whispered in power corridors that the Army and the United States too were averse to Justice Chaudhry’s return primarily due to his suo moto taking up of missing persons’ case. Now the same circles are whispering that “there is always a middle way” where missing people can still be recovered from the system without necessarily exposing those responsible for such disappearances. Word has it that the deal-overseer (read: khakis) shall also be responsible for ensuring that in future no judicial vengeance or activism is allowed to rock the national boat. In simple words, once peace is brokered everyone has to behave, and they will. As for NRO, it shall be given the requisite constitutional protection though in a somewhat circuitous indirect manner.
Amongst the prevailing uncertainty, what is certain is that the future scenario will not be allowed to be crafted solely by the wisdom of the quartet comprising the president, governor Punjab, interior adviser and the chairman Senate. In fact, at least two members of the kitchen cabinet are surely to be axed in the coming days. And talking of future scenarios, do you still remember a gentleman called Jehangir Karamat? He resigned as COAS after the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif felt that he had overstepped his authority by daring to present an honest opinion of the then prevalent institutional and political crisis. He later served as our ambassador to the USA.
General Karamat is said to be regarded highly by the present khaki establishment and is being touted as an excellent replacement for Salmaan Taseer. The Sharifs too would be under a positive check, and not a negative constraint as was the case with Taseer. The other likely casualty is bound to be the interior adviser.
However, presidential quarters say that both Taseer and Malik are very close to the president and there is no question of their removal. In Pakistan, anything can happen, to anyone, at any time. And that’s the tragedy, and the beauty of it all.