Friday, February 27, 2009




    A bitter divorce between the unlikely political bed-fellows – the supposedly left-of-centre, liberal Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) and right-of-centre, conservative Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif (PMLN) – was always on the cards. But the manner and timing of the final parting of ways doesn't seem to make much sense. At a time when the Pakistani state is finding it difficult to maintain effective control over more than half of the country, anarchy, chaos and unrest in Punjab is the last thing Pakistan needed. However, the Machiavellian manipulations of Asif Zardari, coupled with the politically motivated moral rigidity of Nawaz Sharif, seem to have pushed Pakistan further in the direction of state failure.

With the crucial senate elections out of the way, the political air was pregnant with the possibility of some major changes in the power structure of the country. Reports were doing the rounds for quite some time of moves being made and deals being struck to effect regime change in Pakistan's political powerhouse, Punjab. Lending credence to these reports were the provocative actions and utterances of the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, who kept the PMLN led provincial government unsettled by taking pot-shots at it on every conceivable occasion.

And yet, many believed that political brinkmanship would not push things over the edge at this point in time since it would only give a huge fillip to the lawyers Long March and sit-in (Dharna) for the restoration of the ousted chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Until the ouster of the PMLN government in Punjab, the lawyers had received only a somewhat cautious and lukewarm backing from the PMLN. Without the PMLN support, the lawyers would never have got anywhere and in all likelihood their Long March in mid-March would have ended in a whimper. But now, with nothing to lose, nothing at stake, and nursing a deep sense of betrayal, there will be little to restrain Nawaz Sharif from going whole hog to make life difficult, if not impossible, for the PPP-led coalition.

With an open, unrestrained and headlong confrontation between the two biggest political parties of Pakistan now inevitable, the current government is bound to be buffeted by political storms. To protect its flanks, the PPP will be force to seek the support of the military establishment on one side and the quintessential establishment political party, PMLQ, on the other. The end result of this could be the dislodging of the PPP-led coalition and/or another derailment of the democratic process. At the very least the military will once again start playing a pivotal role in deciding the course of Pakistani politics.

On its part, the PPP will be banking upon the public fatigue with agitational politics to ride out the political storm. The rising levels of economic distress will also make it difficult to sustain the momentum of any agitation for a prolonged period. According to the PPP calculation, the bulk of Nawaz Sharif's support comes from Punjabi urban middle-class and traders, not exactly the sort of people who are known for their street fighting skills. Moreover, the PPP sees the PMLN as a 'GT Road party', i.e. a party that is centred only in the Raiwind-Rawalpindi (central Punjab) area. Therefore PMLN's influence and ability to put unbearable pressure on the government is limited. Of course, what the PPP ignores at its own peril is the fact that Nawaz Sharif's bastion is also the centre of gravity of Pakistan's politics. Any upheaval in this belt is enough to destabilise the government in both Lahore and Islamabad.

For Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari's cleverness and slipperiness is a god-send opportunity. On the one hand he has acquired the halo of a victimised hero. On the other hand, his political space is no longer constrained by the need for maintaining a friendly relationship with his biggest political rival, the PPP. Although Nawaz Sharif never tires of pointing out that he is practising the politics of principles (especially on the issue of judges), the fact is that this was a very convenient posture for him to adopt. Like every ambitious politician, Nawaz Sharif too desires power. But this he could not get in the present set-up. He expects to win, and win big, in the next elections and the sooner these take place the better it is for him. His entire effort now will be to bring down the PPP coalition by forcing mid-term elections through use of street power and political manoeuvres.

Nawaz Sharif's success or otherwise in attaining his objective will of course depend not only on his ability to bring his supporters out, but also on the response of the other parties like Jamaat Islami and Tehrik-i-Insaf. Equally important will be the political calculation of other Muslim League factions, particularly the PMLQ, which will have to decide whether to use this opportunity to settle their differences with Nawaz or push him into a corner. Interestingly, Nawaz Sharif's success on the street could easily be a double-edged sword. It could push his political rivals into the waiting arms of Asif Zardari. What is worse, it could also spook the army which is in any case not very comfortable with the prospect of seeing him back in power, even less so as an enormously popular and powerful Prime Minister.

The Pakistan army fears that Nawaz Sharif will almost certainly try and clip its wings by not tolerating any interference by the army in Pakistani politics. The more radical an agenda Nawaz Sharif pushes, the more he prevents the army from taking any action against Asif Zardari. So much so that even if the army is unhappy with Asif Zardari, they will see him as a more pliable, malleable and a lesser evil than Nawaz Sharif who promises to shake things up not only on civil-military relations but also in the War on Terror, the relations with US and on the issue of Islamisation.

To his credit, one major reason why Nawaz Sharif has been hesitant in pushing things with Asif Zardari beyond the point of no return is his political and personal aversion to riding back into power on the back of the army. But despite his own reluctance to look towards the GHQ in Rawalpindi for succour, and notwithstanding the army's reservations, if the situation deteriorates to a point where the PPP government's continuation becomes untenable, and the army finds itself in no position to assume direct control, it might eat humble pie and bring Nawaz Sharif back into power.

The army is however not the only way Nawaz Sharif can dislodge the PPP's government. If he is able to strike a deal with his erstwhile colleagues who are now in the PMLQ, it could devastate the PPP's political calculations. But as things stand, the chances of this happening are negligible, because it will involve a compromise that Nawaz Sharif will find unacceptable. This is something that suits PPP just fine because not only does it divide the Muslim League vote in Punjab, it also provides the PPP and PMLQ alliance the glue of Nawaz Sharif's hostility.

Clearly, Pakistan has entered a phase of political confrontation and competition between the PPP and PMLN which it can ill-afford. Under normal political conditions and a stable state such a power game would have been understandable, even expected. But with the spectre of instability and turmoil looming large over the country, the power struggle getting underway could easily end up pushing Pakistan over the brink.


    <1246 Words>                        28th February, 2009



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