By I.A. Rehman
Much can be said in favour of all the three gladiators in the arena — the lawyers, the government and the PML-N-but much weightier are the arguments against them.
The lawyers were on a high moral ground till they decided to bet on the PML-N’s capacity to bring the government to its knees. The government has been creating problems for itself by crossing the line between political finesse and deviousness. The PML-N had a legitimate political grievance to start with but it has chosen to trivialise revolution.
All of the so-called mainstream parties are mortally afraid of a genuine revolution because it might transform the Sharifs’ estate into a trade union office and the Zardari houses into shelters for women in distress. Obviously what Nawaz Sharif promised the nation was not a revolution in the real sense but merely a regime-change to his liking.
Not long before he raised the standard of baghawat (his own words) Nawaz Sharif was prepared to sew his lips for five years if the judges sacked by Gen Musharraf were restored. The judges’ case or public plight did not justify a call for revolution and it was only the loss of ministry in Punjab that awakened the revolutionary in the mercurial Mian Sahib. Thereafter he had to add ‘public interest’ to the two non-negotiable issues (restoration of judges and revival of the PML-N government in Punjab).
At the same time, the lawyers’ camp started saying that after the judges had been restored they would not rest until the people’s interest had been secured. Does this sudden fit of allegiance to public interest betray a feeling in the PML-N and lawyers’ forces that without promising the citizens a share in the spoils they cannot be sure of victory? Surely they are aware that in the present circumstances the possibilities of satisfying the aspirations of the people are extremely limited. This is hardly the time to seduce the people with dreams that are not going to be realised.
If the PML-N and the lawyers want their commitment to public interest to be taken seriously they must spell out their plans. Statements of goals achievable within a short span of time, particularly in the form of security of life and liberty, guarantees of employment, a fair wage and social security, access to education, healthcare and justice will help the hard-pressed have-nots to pitch their expectations at reasonable levels.
The lawyers sought the cover of PML-N and the religious groups out of despair but now they cannot escape the consequences of allowing themselves to be eclipsed by political elements whose hunger for power may be stronger than their principles. Besides, now they will not be masters of their show. However, both PML-N and the lawyers can depend on the government to make things easier for them — as it has been doing all along.
The government, it seems, has had no desire to occupy the high moral ground. It was not worried if the public got the impression that it made pledges to the PML-N that it had no intention of keeping or it thought Nawaz Sharif could be lulled into forgetting the judges’ issue.
While PML-N was still debating the degree of its support to the lawyers, the government forced its hand by not only imposing governor’s rule in Punjab but also launching a plan to cobble together a majority in the provincial assembly through an alliance with Musharraf’s errand boys. Additional obloquy was earned by offending friends and foes alike while naming new judges. It keeps talking of parliament without practically honouring its supremacy.
The way the federal government has been functioning it has reduced its capacity to meet the challenge ahead. Unmindful of the hazards he is creating for the government the PPP chief has been concentrating on capturing as many key positions as he can. Today he hopes to take the Senate chairman’s post (although an upset is possible). The idea that this will make the party’s (or his own) hold on the levers of power stronger has neither theory nor history to back it. Indeed, by acquiring all-important offices the PPP will become weaker, especially if Zardari is determined to go one up on his predecessors in uniform.
It is time the PPP took stock of its drift. In power it needs greater intra-party democracy than it did while out of power. The party leaders and cadres have to be clear in their minds on two points. First, parliamentary democracy functions best when all affairs are managed by a cabinet which is practically answerable to parliament. The sooner cabinet rule is established the better it will be. Secondly, they should not forget the party’s history at least.
Lack of accommodation for parties to common accords and attempts to ambush provincial governments did not help Bhutto extend his rule, indeed, these tactics shortened his career — and the present leaders are not a patch on him.
The bitter reality is that if the federal government persists in its present posture it could land itself in a no-win situation with only four options: first, to try to prevent the lawyers’ long march from taking off, an exercise requiring the detention of a large number of lawyers and political leaders. Their followers would be free to go berserk. The law and order situation could deteriorate, forcing the authorities to fall back on desperate measures. This would prolong tensions and merely postpone issues indefinitely.
Secondly, the lawyers and their more numerous supporters could be prevented from entering Islamabad. This task may be impossible to achieve. Clashes at the barricades may result in casualties and matters may become unmanageable. Thirdly, force could be used against the protesters who succeed in gathering in Islamabad. That could spark riots as malcontents would try to exploit the situation.
It seems the government has chosen to exercise these three options. It is doubtful if it will succeed. What is not in doubt is that it will alienate an overwhelming majority of conscious citizens.
The fourth option is that the federal government prefers a tactical retreat from a battle that could extinguish democratic rule, and restores the judges, has the Punjab Assembly summoned to elect a new leader of the house, and retires all agents engaged in horse-trading. This move would neither end the problems of democratisation nor repair PPP’s bruised image. But it may give all parties and the people a badly needed respite and opportunities of breaking out of the compulsion of having to choose between Tweedledee and Tweedledum — which in fact means no choice at all.