Mar 7, 2009

Back to horse-trading

Rahimullah Yusufzai
Predictably, the horse-trading in Punjab has started with PML-N lawmaker Laila Muqaddas (what a name!) switching sides and forming a so-called "forward bloc" in the party. She is claiming the support of 27 MPAs, ten of whom are stated to be female. It isn't surprising that women are vulnerable even in choosing the party of their choice as the decision in almost all cases is made by a male relative. In Laila Muqaddas's case, her father and PML-N Gujranwala division president Khizar Hayat Mangat, or father-in-law as some newspapers reported, was the final arbiter. He reportedly bargained first with Shahbaz Sharif and then turned to the PPP leaders before closing the deal and changing loyalty. Laila Muqaddas didn't name the defecting lawmakers and said they would announce their decisions within a week. Apparently, a week's time is needed to work on the vulnerable or dissident PML-N lawmakers and make them change loyalties. But the exercise could take longer, as Qasim Zia, the PPP parliamentary leader in the Punjab Assembly and the party's former provincial president, has said that the PPP-led government will be in place in the province by the end of March. Governor's rule in Punjab, as we all know, was imposed for two months to provide Governor Salmaan Taseer enough time to turn the minority PPP into the majority party in the provincial assembly. The horse-trading was to be expected after the imposition of governor's rule in Punjab by President Asif Ali Zardari. Mr Taseer is a divisive figure due to his partisan, pro-PPP politicking. Governor's rule was meant for the specific purpose of ousting the Shahbaz Sharif-headed PML-N government and installing in its place one led by the PPP. As this couldn't be done through democratic means, undemocratic and unsavoury methods had to be used to gain a majority in the Punjab Assembly. Carrots, and occasionally sticks, are put into use to win over wavering lawmakers. Right now, carrots are in season and any broker with the right offer could make things happen in Punjab. In fact, the money-grabbing Senate elections have just taken place and there have been allegations that money changed hands and certain rich and influential candidates managed to become senators. The NWFP government, made up of the PPP and once-upon-a-time-principled ANP, banned the media from covering the polling for Senate polls on the provincial assembly premises to make sure no lawmaker showing his or her ballot paper to party leaders was caught on camera as it happened during the president's election at the same place last year. Despite promises and even after suffering due to defections, no political party has taken proper measures while in power to plug legal loopholes to prevent floor-crossing and disqualify disloyal legislators. This isn't done because every party wants to play the game of defections when it is its turn to rule the country. Triggering defections from other parties has been a time-tested tactic in Pakistani politics and both the PPP and the PML-N, along with other political parties, have employed it in the past to make or break governments. The pro-PML-N forward bloc in the PML-Q, which, with its 30 or so MPAs, now holds the balance in the Punjab Assembly, couldn't have come into being without the active backing of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. The PPP did this to perfection in Balochistan where the PML-Q was reduced from the single-largest party to almost nothing when its lawmakers were made to defect in return for berths in the bloated provincial cabinet. This is nothing new. Even in the 1950s, the Republican Party was formed overnight by winking Muslim Leaguers, forever ready to jump ship and join the king's party, to align with the new dispensation. All this is happening at a time when Pakistan has once again suffered a devastating terrorist attack on account of a serious security lapse. Not more than a dozen terrorists struck in the heart of Lahore, killing six policemen and a civilian and just missed their real target, the visiting Sri Lankan cricketers. Needless to say, the Sri Lankans, due to their cavalier approach to cricket, have given so much enjoyment to fans worldwide. By agreeing to play in Pakistan, an unstable country no cricket team apart from Bangladesh was willing to visit, captain Mahela Jayawardene and his colleagues did a service to Pakistani sports and played their role in strengthening relations between the two South Asian countries. But we repaid the debt when some Pakistanis, for whatever motive, tried to kill them. Mercifully, the rocket that was fired at their bus didn't explode and the one or two hand grenades thrown at them missed the target. And then the driver, Mehr Khalil Ahmad, displayed courage and presence of mind to save himself and the Sri Lankans by calmly driving the bus to the safety of the Qadhafi Stadium. As for the Punjab police and administration -- working under the command of all-powerful Governor Salmaan Taseer -- providing security to the Sri Lankan and also to Pakistani cricketers was a lower priority than controlling PML-N protests against the imposition of governor's rule, escorting VVIPs and performing protocol duty. The "president-level" security promised to the Sri Lankan guests was nowhere in sight. Who would believe such hollow promises in future and this holds true for not only sports teams but also foreign investors and the casual tourists still planning to visit Pakistan? The six elite Punjab police cops who laid down their lives in the line of duty were unable to fire a single shot in their defence and were apparently ill-equipped and inadequately trained to tackle such a situation. Except for the Crime Investigation Department (CID) Punjab chief Malik Iqbal, no other head has rolled following the Liberty Chowk terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore. Many would consider him a scapegoat because neither the ruling politicians nor the police and intelligence agency bosses are conceding their failure in preventing the attack or at least mounting an effort to retaliate and nab the attackers. Those images of the terrorists calmly walking away and driving on stuttering motorcycles without being challenged have been seen all over the world and such a clear evidence of the inability of our law-enforcement agencies to cope with an emergency is not only embarrassing but also a national shame. We were all criticising the Indian security agencies and forces for being unable to prevent the Mumbai terrorist attacks and taking so long in overcoming the dozen attackers. Perhaps the incident in Lahore is an even bigger failure on the part of those entrusted and paid to provide us security and make sure that our guests, the Sri Lankan cricket heroes, remained unharmed. The foremost worry right now is that another terrorist strike of the scale of the Lahore attack -- or the one at Marriott Hotel, Islamabad, not to mention the numerous others that frequently happen in Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan, Swat, FATA, Karachi, Quetta and elsewhere -- will take place and the previous ones would be forgotten. And amid all these bombings and death and destruction, the game of musical chairs will continue. Nobody will be made accountable for destabilising Punjab, Pakistan's most peaceful and politically stable province until now, just to install a government of one's choice through undemocratic means. President Zardari made no effort to hide his plans to grab absolute power by declaring that a PPP government would be installed in Punjab. He could back down if the mediation by his two political allies, Asfandyar Wali Khan and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, provided him with a face-saving way out of the crisis, but the damage has been done and there is no hope that he will be made to pay for his mistake. No judge will be taken to task for handing down a verdict that disqualified two popular politicians, Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, in a case that was political in nature and plunged Pakistan's biggest and richest province, and even the country, into a crisis. In a way, the judgement by the three Supreme Court judges created a situation that provided the terrorists an opportunity to exploit the chaos and strike in the Punjab capital, Lahore. The merrymaking will continue until the next terrorist strike or calamity happens and then there would be a pause before politics returns to its familiar carefree pattern.

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