By Shaheen Sehbai
ISLAMABAD: The crumbling presidential edifice in the bunkered palace with two green flags on the Constitution Avenue is giving rise to numerous stories, some fiction, some wishful thinking, and some partly true.
The man inside the house is reported by some to be collapsing while others say he is in a defiant mood and will fight till the last. One thing is clear though that a psywar is going on and President Asif Ali Zardari has not many friends who have unflinching faith and commitment to defend him.
The key role is being played by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and it is hard to figure out on whose side he really stands. His own political future is also at stake but his role has assumed the all critical importance because everyone is looking up to him, the civil and military establishment has put its power eggs in his basket as against the president, while his party remains confused and divided. The opposition and most of his coalition partners have abandoned the president but continue to back his handpicked prime minister.
The few who are still standing with Zardari include the Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, whose latest brag that there would be no ‘minus-1’ but that if anything happened it would be a ‘minus-342’ (reference to total strength of the National Assembly) is considered by many as the final defeatist declaration that Zardari will not go alone but will take the entire house with him. There are not many takers for Taseer’s threats. On the contrary, the party which President Zardari considered to be his most dependable ally, the MQM of Altaf Hussain, has gone many steps forward to seek his removal from the top office. Almost everyone I met and talked to was surprised at the leap Altaf Hussain had taken from just opposing or abstaining from voting on the NRO to demanding the resignation of Zardari. It was like the last straw on the heavily loaded camel’s back and Zardari was stunned, those around him reported.
His attempt to save the sinking ship by calling Governor of Sindh Ishratul Ebad to Islamabad and then authorising Interior Minister Rehman Malik to fly to Dubai for urgent talks with an MQM delegation from London could be the last desperate effort but as someone who knows the scene reported, “The MQM has closed the doors and has gone to sleep,” meaning that it is no longer interested in seeing Zardari sitting in the Presidency.
Nice words wrapped in high sounding moral logic are being said by MQM to urge Zardari to make his exit dignified but Altaf Hussain is not backtracking from his demand of a resignation. He probably knows more than many in Islamabad. Even when Governor Ebad was rushing to Dubai on Wednesday night after meeting the president, the MQM made it a point to include the resignation issue in the agenda of the Dubai talks expected to begin on Friday.
Conspiracy theories have been weaved around the Dubai talks as well. One analyst who knows the extremely cordial and friendly relations between the MQM and Rehman Malik thinks one positive outcome of the Dubai talks could be that Malik could get a chance to take a leave of absence from Pakistan at a time when his presence in the country is needed more. But MQM negotiators are not in a mood to step back from their resignation advice to the president.
This political pressure is causing one-sided fueling of the countdown theories. The wild ones go far with some, claiming to be well informed, saying it was a matter of days not weeks or months that Zardari will hang his gloves, just like General Musharraf did. Some MQM circles bet on weeks. The divergence of views appears limited only to when, and not if.
The intense argument in all circles is the mechanics of his exit from the Presidency. The MQM wants him to become a Sonia Gandhi, running the party from behind the frontlines. Others want him to disappear into foreign downtowns and enjoy his billions in the manner Benazir Bhutto had practically forced him to do for years after his release and exit from Pakistan in 2004. Yet others want him to be dragged again in the newly liberated courts and bring back the money he may have stacked outside.
Senior PPP circles have a confused mind because they do not know how the party would react. But all agree that the PPP, and for that matter Sindh, could react in different ways, depending on the mode and manner of his exit. If there was an impression that he had been forced out at gunpoint, there may be a different reaction. If the exit is through a process and publicly justified and explained, the reaction may be milder. If a judicial and constitutional method was applied and Zardari failed to defend himself properly, no tears may be shed.
What these circles cannot defend and what makes them hide their frustration with sheepish smiles are the stories of corruption, which are not forcefully and convincingly being denied by the Presidency, the PM House or the jumpy party spokespersons. Many PPP leaders privately describe their pathetic situation as the ‘Silence of the Lambs’.
In such a crumbling state of affairs, the PPP leadership is missing a dynamic leader who could take charge and take on the opponents with the force of integrity and commitment. The prime minister is yet to declare himself the de facto leader of the party, though he is technically the leader of the House in parliament. There is no Bhutto who could motivate the cadres. The chairman is absent from the scene and understandably so. The co-chairman is in a bunker and fighting the psywars and trying to stay cool. The party has been left to rot in a smoky aura of uncertainty and lack of direction. The opposition has claimed high moral ground, although many in that camp also belong to the same caste and creed which has eaten up the PPP from within.
Sindh, the bastion of the PPP, is quiet and has been practically taken over by the shrewd politics of MQM.
For months, the PPP has been trying to replace the Nazims of Karachi and other urban centres under the MQM control pending the local bodies elections but the MQM has successfully thwarted their attempts. Now the MQM has come out openly and has joined the anti-Zardari camp but the PPP government in Sindh is unable to take any decisive action against Altaf Bhai’s cadres.
One notable achievement of the MQM, which has made it almost impossible for the PPP to touch it, has been the tight security control of the MQM in the city against terrorist attacks. MQM vigilantes monitor and patrol almost all neighbourhoods and keep a watch on all suspicious people, thus denying the suicide bombers the space to hide and strike.
The Pathans, led by the ANP in Karachi, are also on the same side on this issue and this has made Karachi the safest city in the country in the context of terrorist attacks. While the PPP runs the government, the credit has to go to the MQM and the ANP and this is also an unusual situation. President Zardari, of course, cannot take any of the credit.
In fact the PPP stronghold in Karachi, Lyari, has been the most troubled area in the city for weeks and months and fingers are again being pointed at gang leaders who have been getting support, or claiming to have the backing, of Bilawal House.
So while the options for President Zardari are diminishing by the day in terms of his political survival, his party is not in a position to provide him any strength or support to face the fierce onslaught.
The majority view in Islamabad circles is that Zardari, looking at this gloomy picture, inside his bunkered Presidency, in drawing rooms of his party leaders and outside on the streets, would ultimately be pushed to call it a day himself, saving himself the grief and rigours of a forced exit. Some even fear a desperate panic move like sacking the Army chief while the president is on one of his visits abroad. A reverse replay of October 12, 1999. The logic being that in case his orders are implemented then he returns home a strong and rejuvenated president, and if plans go awry then he is at least at a safe distance from his nemesis. Another suicidal advice indeed.
A stronger view is that his personality, his so called street wisdom, his political acumen, which so far have miserably failed him, would urge him to keep fighting and go down as a political martyr, if need be, so that his political heirs and the party could claim that the PPP had not abandoned the tradition of making sacrifices. If he could manage it, he can also make his exit a ‘Punjabi conspiracy’ to force out yet another Sindhi leader and play the so-called Sindh Card.
Yet the perplexing question in all minds is why has he not changed his ways of the past, not stopped the shady deals by his cronies, has made highly questionable appointments, has gone on junkets worldwide for deals which should have been transparent, has bought properties and lands and has eyed businesses belonging to others with greed. All this leaves the sick impression that he is running a corporation and not a country.
The dichotomy many cannot resolve is that if his target is only to earn more profits, why would he like to become a political martyr and not enjoy the riches that he has collected.
Strictly in legal or constitutional terms, Zardari has not done anything as yet which may compel the forces that have the power of the gun to force him out. But his overall failures, his deceptive ways to hoodwink power centres, keeping around him friends of the days in exile who have annoyed almost every institution that matters — the judiciary, the media, the Army, the bureaucracy, have created the aura that he is unfit for the job and has not grown in the big shoes that he stepped into last year.
For these failures, an impeachment in parliament is not possible but his mistakes will haunt him in courts, in parliament, in the media and the civil and military establishment may not forgive him.
But he can hit back with some radical moves — sack his cronies, repeal the 17th Amendment in a day or two, give an extension to the Army chief, bring back angry PPP stalwarts after due apologies and go before the courts instead of seeking shelter behind the NRO.
Otherwise, the political countdown, which began some months ago, continues. The establishment joined in a few weeks back. His coalition broke up days ago. Rats are said to be preparing to abandon the sinking ship as these lines are being written. The momentum cannot be stopped.
Zardari will have to make his decision very quickly on whether he wants to exit with dignity or become a martyr. The days, as they say, are in fact numbered.