The capital rumour mill-By Ayesha Siddiqa

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The capital is abuzz with rumours of a minus-one formula. Some are suggesting that there is a minus-three formula. Such destabilising stories were confined to the grapevine until the information minister, followed by the Sindh chief minister, spoke about them.

One must never undermine the power of the rumour mill in the capital. It works efficiently, especially when there is a weak political government, and causes nervousness.

Perhaps, the intention is to make the government tense. This would result in further weakening it and pave the way for its possible collapse. So why does the rumour mill work and who are the forces that are part of it?

The minus-one formula refers to the topmost leadership of the present government and the minus-three, according to the grapevine, pertains to the topmost leadership plus the top leadership from the primary opposition party. Some even suggest that the minus-three formula refers to the top man in government and his two close cronies. The bottom-line is that both formulas are about the ouster of people that are despised by alternative power centres.

It is apparent that a powerful establishment will not allow a political dispensation to settle down comfortably especially if it is suspected of expanding its writ at an extremely fast pace without any regard for the core interests of the establishment. Historically, the corruption and inefficiency of the government comes in handy in generating propaganda that can weaken it and lead to its ouster.

The misfortune of the present government is its inefficiency which has hurt people more than its alleged corruption. In fact, corruption in a developing country becomes problematic when it is accompanied by inefficiency. For instance, in the past two decades one has rarely come across an example of an agri-based economy running out of fertiliser. Poor farmers, who consequently had to purchase the commodity from the black market, can hardly think in positive terms about the government’s capacity to deliver.

However, it is far more interesting to see how different segments of state and society seem to be conspiring to restructure the government. At this juncture, we can see two governments in Pakistan; one headed by the president, the other by the prime minister. While the president appears to have a poor perception of the people’s needs and aspirations, a shortcoming that is a result of him being confined to the presidential palace, he is also not conscious of appreciating the line between the areas that belong to the establishment and issues that he could deal with.

There are two issues worth mentioning. First, all previous governments of the 1990s fell because they were not careful when it came to assessing their limits. Civilian rulers often come under the misperception that they have more power than the establishment. Second, this is not something peculiar to Pakistan. A glance at numerous Latin and Central American states shows that the empowerment of democratic institutions and the strengthening of civilian rule in those countries were obtained through years of careful negotiation with the establishment. The problem in Pakistan is that there is never a plan or a method to do so.

Clearly, national security is an area that represents the military’s corporate interests (the term must not be confused with commercial interest though these too are now part of the military’s larger corporate interests). Any leader seen as intruding in such affairs or as changing the general drift of policy in matters critical to the military’s interest is considered a huge challenge.

Unfortunately, the present government at the topmost level has depended excessively on external help at the cost of not creating institutional support to negotiate power with the military. The president’s misperception of being more knowledgeable and experienced than others in running affairs of the state will prove costly. His attitude has already resulted in a necessary rearrangement at the top level which compromises his control.

So, if members of the government feel that there is some vicious minus-one formula in place, this is not their wild imagination. It is very difficult to run after hard evidence because most of the functioning and management in politically unstable systems is done through word of mouth rather than employing institutional mechanisms. In fact, if such societies begin to have institutions they would not be weak any more.

This is not to suggest that the alternative powers are close to making the desired changes in the government. A drastic change might be envisioned but is difficult due to the lack of clarity regarding the PPP’s future. The issue with dynastic politics is that changing the party leadership takes a long time.

The history of the Muslim League is a case in point. Since being taken over by the establishment the party underwent many drastic changes and splits. However, time is a critical factor if the same is to happen to the PPP. There is none in the top leadership of the party who has the capacity to become its alternative guardian. The party might be hurting but is not about to break.

Under the circumstances, the grapevine will be used effectively along with some elements in the media that are acting as the establishment’s fifth column to keep the top leadership on its toes. For sceptics, this sector has become a critical part of the discourse between different power centres due to the absence of any institutional mechanism for a dialogue.

Meanwhile, the assault on this government is different from the one of the 1990s because the top leader appears to be no easy prey and is intent on fighting. If he doesn’t realise the necessity of creating institutions and improving his efficiency at talking and delivering, the government and resultantly the state will become highly unstable.

The issue of power politics is that power centres which have a stronger institutional base are extremely rigid and difficult to fight back. Moreover, the onus of not destabilising the government and state falls on the civilian regime, the political parties and the establishment. None can be absolved from leading the state towards another crisis.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.


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