Friday, March 13, 2009




Like a tired Bollywood potboiler, the current political crisis in Pakistan is a replay of the hackneyed script of the 1990's, albeit with new 'treatment', lots of twists, some new faces and situations. In true Bollywood style, the script of the Pakistani political potboiler is a work in progress and keeps changing as the plot progresses – by the day and at times by the hour. Little surprise then that the drop scene has still not been written. It will depend on the twists, turns, U-turns that the main actors make, either on the own volition or on the instructions of some of the script-writers who sit in the GHQ, Rawalpindi, and the financiers who sit in Washington. A small and yet significant part of the script could also be dictated by Saudis' and other sundry creditors. But the million dollar question is how the Pakistani street receives this potboiler. Will they burn down the theatre, or have they become comfortably numb to the nonsense being peddled to them? Most important, will the script writers and financiers lose patience with the endless twists and turns in the plot and decide to shelve the whole project?

For the moment, most Pakistanis are not exactly enamoured by the plot that is playing out before them. In fact, they are worried: worried about the slippery slope on which they find their country, worried about the growing power and influence of the Islamist militias or Taliban, worried about their daily battle for food, clothing, housing, education, health, the list is endless. A small, very vocal minority – their number greatly exaggerated by a partisan media – has, nevertheless, come out on the streets, seduced by the tantalising images of a just, progressive, prosperous future that has been shown to them by plotting politicians, a megalomaniac media, and a confounded civil society. Of course, these people don't realise that while they have come out on a matter of principle, those who are leading them (one daresay, up the garden path) have latched on to the same principle for their own personal aggrandisement.

For instance, a leading light of the Lawyer's movement smells an opportunity for forcing Asif Zardari out of the picture, capturing control over the PPP by emerging as the consensus candidate, and then using this position to become either the President or Prime Minister. Then there is the current Prime Minister, who on his own is a political lightweight but has suddenly latched on to political morality as a means of shaking off the reflected glory of Asif Zardari. He too is trying to show himself as an independent minded person, a leader in his own right, who as the flag-bearer of principled politics deserves to be the leader of the PPP in the event Asif Zardari continuance becomes completely untenable. A set of disgruntled PPP leaders, some of them courtiers of Benazir Bhutto, are bristling over their being sidelined by the new leadership of the party, and are using the opportunity to settle scores with Asif Zardari.

There are of course the Sharif brothers who until their disqualification from holding elected office and the dismissal of their party's government in Punjab prevaricated over going whole hog in support of the movement for restoring the deposed chief justice. The Jamaat Islami and political non-entities like Imran Khan are in turn using Nawaz Sharif and his popular base to project themselves much beyond what their own political base will permit. But the most ridiculous aspect of the entire scene is the holier than thou attitude taken by former generals and bureaucrats. Many of these quite contemptible characters should ideally be in prison for the abuse and misuse of power when they were in office. For instance, the retired super-bureaucrat who has willingly collaborated with every military government in the past in Pakistan, and who now has the gall to come on TV and say that had he still been serving he would have refused to implement any illegal order given by the government! Or the ex-generals, who have assisted military coups in the past, and who now have the audacity to give lessons on democracy and rule of law to the people of Pakistan.

Quite in keeping with the times, the name of the game is marketing. The political actors who are able to market their story better and create a buzz and hype around themselves are likely to emerge the winner. Perception has always been important in politics. But what is happening in Pakistan today is manufacturing of perception through a blatant disinformation and misinformation media campaign. As things stand, the spin-doctors have succeeded in creating the conjecture of a full-blown crisis, which in turn has been fuelled further by the panicky, ham-handed and quite unnecessary response of the government machinery to the Long March to Islamabad. Media barons, out to prove that they have the power to make and break governments, and journalists, majority of them from a conservative, Punjabi urban lower middle-class background, with deep antipathy towards President Asif Zardari, have together declared an open season on the government. So much so that people who never had a good word to say about Benazir Bhutto during her lifetime, cannot now stop extolling her virtues, only so that they can use her name to portray her husband as a charlatan.

All this is not to deny the seriousness of the political crisis in Pakistan. Only, it has still not reached that critical stage in which only doomsday scenarios can unfold. Even at this stage – the second day of the Long March – the crisis is more manufactured than real. But with everyone wittingly and unwittingly buying into the media created conjecture, it has now taken a life of its own and is threatening to turn into a reality. As a result, a sense of unbearable pressure has been created in an already fragile political system.

Something has now got to give for this pressure to release. This in turns opens up a real possibility of some sort of deal being worked out between the main players. But chances are that any deal that is struck will only end up setting the stage for the next big showdown between the main protagonists.

The parameters of a possible deal will probably revolve around the three conditions laid down by Nawaz Sharif – reversing the disqualification order, lifting governor's rule in Punjab and restoring the deposed chief justice. Asif Zardari is reported to have agreed to the first two conditions, but is holding out on the third. Even if he was to give in on all three conditions, the devil will lie in the finalising the modalities for implementing these conditions.

The disqualification order cannot be reversed by a wave of the wand. It is possible only through either a judicial review (which Nawaz Sharif won't accept since he doesn't consider the current judiciary legitimate) or through a constitutional amendment, which requires a two thirds majority. Amending the constitution only to grant relief to the Sharif brothers will look rather strange in a political system that professes to be democratic. This means that a constitutional package will have to be agreed upon, something that will require hard-nosed political bargaining and will not happen overnight.

Lifting the governor's rule doesn't necessary mean reinstating a PML(Nawaz) government in Punjab. If the PPP and PMLQ strike a deal then they will be well within their right to form a government in Punjab. This will mean continuing hostility from Nawaz Sharif and company. On the other hand if PMLN succeeds in forming its government in Punjab, then tensions between Islamabad and Lahore will keep the political pot boiling.

Finally there is the mother of all problems – the restoration of the deposed chief justice. Asif Zardari will not be averse to conceding on this provided it is done under a constitutional package that circumscribes the powers of the Chief Justice so that he doesn't run amok and interfere in the running of the government. Left to himself, Nawaz Sharif too will be inclined to accept checks and balance on the powers of the chief justice. But he will find it difficult to sell such a package politically, more so after having gone out on a limb of the question of independence of judiciary. If however the chief justice is restored without any limits on his power, his rulings will remain controversial especially if they go against anyone who did not back his restoration. For instance, if he was to strike the controversial NRO off the statute books, who will accept that this was done on the merits of the case and not to get even with Asif Zardari!

No matter how the script pans out, it appears as though Pakistan will continue to lurch from one political crisis to another. After the February 2008 elections, the politics of consensus that Asif Zardari had initiated, was aimed precisely at avoiding the political turmoil being witnessed at present. But the manner in which political differences have been personalised by Nawaz Sharif coupled with the violation of solemn political commitments by Asif Zardari has probably created an almost unbridgeable cleavage between the two biggest political parties in Pakistan. Even if they now manage to paper over their differences for the time being, their mutual distrust and suspicion will ensure that such an arrangement will not last very long. The biggest beneficiary of this will be the army and by extension the Islamists who will use this to show the perfidy of mainstream politicians and present themselves as the only viable and workable political alternative in Pakistan.


    <1600 Words>                    14th March, 2009



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