Mar 2, 2009

A perilous road

As the PPP’s game plan in Punjab unfolds, there remain more questions than answers. It appears that the imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab and changes to the administrative structure in the province were meant to create a fait accompli that would tempt the PML-Q to hitch its fortunes to the PPP and allow the two parties to shut the PML-N out of power in Punjab.
Thus far the PML-Q had allowed itself to be courted by both sides, perhaps in the hope of ultimately extracting a higher price from either side for its support. But the PML-Q’s indecision may also have to do with concerns about its own future.
On the one hand, a PML-Q alliance with the PML-N runs the risk of losing its independent status and being reabsorbed by the party from which it was cleaved by Gen Musharraf. On the other hand, an alliance with the PPP runs the risk of creating an unstable government that from the get-go will be besieged by the most popular party in Punjab.
By altering the political ground in Punjab, the PPP may have hoped the PML-Q would quickly fall in line behind it. But that has not happened. Furthermore, the PPP appears to have miscalculated on two other counts. First, the ferociousness of the PML-N’s response may have taken the PPP by surprise.
The disqualified Sharif brothers have launched fierce attacks against President Zardari and threatened agitation on the streets of Punjab that may spin out of control. Second, some members of the ruling coalition in Islamabad have expressed dismay at the turn of events in Punjab and not thrown their support behind the PPP.
Yesterday’s hastily convened session of the National Assembly called at the government’s request may then have been an attempt at damage limitation to switch the attention to Islamabad while matters are stitched up in the wheeling and dealing that is no doubt under way in Punjab. Strong speeches were expected from the floor of the National Assembly and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the PML-N leader of the opposition and a powerful orator, delivered the expected verbal blows.
What happens next is worryingly uncertain. Even if the PPP is able to cobble together a government in Punjab, the lawyers’ long march looms and could result in a violent confrontation between the lawyers and the PML-N on one side and the PPP on the other. If that happens, the Punjab crisis will become a national crisis.
Even otherwise it is hard to see how events in Punjab will not undermine governance at the centre. The rub lies in the fact that the PPP and PML-N are two lumbering giants that straddle this country. When they square off, everything and everyone else is almost sure to be trampled underfoot.

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