All power players in Pakistan focus on constitutional knock-out

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Kerry-Lugar law’s Muridke clause alienates Army from; NRO-hit presidency; Zardari falls back on Nawaz; ready to give up 17th Amendment powers

 By Shaheen Sehbai

KARACHI: An intense, behind the scenes, strategic and decisive review of the current political situation has begun among major power players, both political and non-political, to quickly decide how to stabilise the situation, seriously threatened by impending questions about the fate of those who benefited from the infamous NRO and are now in top positions of the country.

After detailed background interviews and sessions with most of the stakeholders, it is now becoming clear that unless the present system is cleansed and the major irritants are removed, the desperately needed political stability and the required moral and political support for the on-going civil war-like situation would not be available. This may, and probably already is, seriously hampering the military-cum-security operations against the hit-and-run or hit-and-die terrorists roaming all over the country.

Although the apparent problem is the uncertainty about what would happen to the NRO in parliament and even if passed by a simple majority, what may happen if the Supreme Court strikes down the controversial law ab initio, the issue which is driving everyone crazy is the wide gulf that has emerged between the top civilian and military leadership on how to handle America and the war on terror, denials and clarifications notwithstanding.

A well-informed insider said things had gone so bad that the military leaders had refused to meet President Asif Ali Zardari recently but it was Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani who persuaded the Pindi people to at least convey their views in a face-to-face sitting so a patch up, if possible, may be attempted. That effort too did not work.

Unfortunately, or probably in the interest of the system as the other side may argue, the political wings of our military establishment (read agencies), which had almost become redundant and were dormant for some months, have now come back into action with full force.

According to a recent BBC analysis: “The military launched a massive public relations exercise, briefing sympathetic talk-show hosts and journalists, who were encouraged to whip up public opinion against the (Kerry-Lugar) Bill. General Kayani also secretly met the opposition politician Shahbaz Sharif, the Punjab CM, who the Army had ostracised until now.”

Though such behind-the-scene interference has always been a major factor in political changes in the country, it is never legitimate or desirable. The Army is unhappy and angry because Zardari has given away too many concessions to the Americans and the GHQ realises that if the Kerry-Lugar Bill was to be implemented as desired by Washington, Pakistani cities could soon turn into battlegrounds between the Army and the Lashkar Tayyaba, the Jaish Mohammed and Taliban forces combined.

So far the GHQ has kept the Lashkar Tayyaba quiet by not acceding to the US demands of attacking or even touching Muridke, arguing that once this sleeping elephant wakes up, it could turn around and trample our own forces. After all, the LeT was raised and trained by our military establishment to fight the Indians in Kashmir and they are good at it. Turning their guns inwards, with TTP suicide bombers roaming everywhere, would turn Pakistan into a burning inferno, ready to collapse. Thus the Kerry-Lugar Bill is considered to be a recipe for instant disaster.

These arguments apart, the fact, however, is that the politicians are again failing to handle their own affairs in a deft manner and may again have provided the opportunity or the space for such behind-the-scene military intervention. One such occasion was provided on March 15 when the long march threatened the system.

Leading political parties are weighing their options. Consultations, often late in the night between key leaders, are at a peak to find some formula which may save the political parties from the embarrassment of voting for a black law but at the same time saving the system from failing once again.

The bottom line is how to change the image of the presidency, how to bring back its credibility and how to make it an institution which could be trusted and respected, by the people and its armed forces alike. President Asif Zardari, who had the God-given opportunity to rise to the occasion, has failed miserably by acting in a cavalier manner, by destroying his own credibility and by foisting upon the nation a coterie of cronies who may have been good providers of goods and services to him in jail but are not fit by any standard to run the affairs of the country.

This personalised style of governance has confused all political leaders and parties. They do not know whether to support Zardari on the NRO or to take a principled stand against him. The position of PPP allies is extremely difficult. The ANP and the JUI are inclined to stay neutral at best, although publicly they have opposed the NRO repeatedly. Abstention may also not help Zardari.

The MQM is on a crossroads as the party has recently announced a major makeover of its public face, trying to go into Punjab and other parts of Pakistan and transform into a country-wide party. But it is stuck with the PPP in Sindh and going against the NRO would cause a serious breach in these relations since it would again be seen as an anti-Sindh move, aimed at supporting the Punjabi political and military establishment.

The MQM think tanks do not want to get into a situation in which the apparently stable province could fall back into the dreaded urban-rural conflict once again, with the Taliban waiting on the outskirts of Karachi to strike at the city as soon as they get the chance.

So far, MQM strategists say, the Taliban have refrained from attacking Karachi because firstly the level of public vigilance in the city is far greater and intense because of the omni-present MQM cadres on the streets, and secondly because the Pathans in Karachi seriously believe that their economic and financial interests would be severely hit if Taliban terrorism disrupts the city.

So the Pukhtoons are in no mood to secretly provide sanctuaries to suicide bombers and could openly confront them if need be. On this issue, they and the MQM are on the same page, with strong political support from the ANP and the Jamaat-e-Islami. Several meetings between the MQM and Pathan leadership on this issue have already raised the level of mutual trust and coordination for joint action.

Yet for the MQM to openly support the NRO would be a retrogressive political decision. Conversely, if the MQM came out publicly against the NRO and offered to present all its beneficiaries to take their cases to the courts, the party will gain moral high ground and the party will get a facelift throughout the country, which could otherwise take years to accomplish.

For the PPP itself, the NRO is a major divisive issue. Except for the few top beneficiaries, the general PPP cadres had nothing to do with it and privately are deadly opposed to voting for such a black law. But they have other interests associated with staying in power and they would not like to rock the boat, if the NRO threatens to derail the current PPP stint in power.

The feeling in some PPP circles is that if the NRO strikes at Zardari and his cronies, rural Sindh, where the PPP has grass root support for the Bhuttos, would not react as fiercely as many predict it would. This may be so because Zardari and his Sindhi friends, who were never part of the Benazir circle, have generated enough ill will and animosity in the last 18 months. Some have been forced to recall the funny story of the coffin thief of a village and his son. It is better not to repeat that story.

The prime minister appears to be in two minds and would publicly like to support the president but he had himself refused to take any benefit from the NRO and had his own cases judged by the regular Musharraf courts under old laws. That one correct political decision may help him immensely when the NRO may keep haunting others.

But he is also lobbying secretly for the principled political parties, both allies and opponents, to take a stand against the NRO so that the system could be cleansed and stabilised. How much support he can muster within the PPP is a moot question but if he takes a public position, many would come forward to support him. His government would in no case fall because the PML-N has offered to sustain it.

The intense discussions behind closed doors are focusing on finding some way out before the NRO explodes into the political scene and starts rocking the boat. Political wings of agencies are secretly lobbying members of parliament to vote out the law, which may force the president to think about giving up his powers or to resign.

Various compromise formulas are also doing the rounds, some code named minus-5 and others minus-12. The five and 12 are the personal friends and helpers of Zardari during his jail time, who have now been posted on sensitive state positions.

The stand taken by the Fata members is one such example of immense relevance. Although, they have taken up an anti-government position on a different issue, they want to sit in the opposition and would not like to side with the pro-NRO lobby. If that happens, it would be a major blow to the Zardari camp. The role of the secret agencies thus would come out in the open.

An overriding desire and effort in all the camps, including the non-political establishment, is not to rock the entire system. Everyone agrees in private that if President Zardari and his group of few unwanted aides were sidelined, the system will stabilise so that the focus can be shifted to the war against terrorists. But resilience and the fighting spirit of Zardari is being tested by the day.

According to one source located within the presidency, tension in the presidential camp is mounting and a battle headquarter is being set up to mobilise forces, appease allies, win over opponents and get the NRO passed by parliament, even bulldozed if necessary. But all the excitement suddenly dies down when the question of the Supreme Court striking down the NRO comes up. Everyone is suddenly dumbfounded.

The latest initiative by President Zardari to meet PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif to sort out their issues is viewed in the presidency as their last ditch political offensive to get Nawaz Sharif on his side. The argument that will be pitched to him will be that the military establishment is again out to derail the political process and in this fight the politicians should stay on the same side.

Although, Nawaz is strongly of the same views, it is highly unlikely that he will take sides with Zardari unless some huge, really huge, concessions are made and immediately, without waiting for any minute, hour or day.

Informed presidential sources say President Zardari is now ready to give up all his powers under the 17th Amendment, including the powers to appoint the Army chief but whether it is too late and too little for Nawaz to accept this bait is not yet clear. What is clear is that Nawaz has been bitten twice or thrice by the same snake hole and he may not like to poke his finger in that hole again.

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