Mar 14, 2009

A presidential ‘punga’

By Irfan Husain
The last straw was when she was nipped by the bird while passing by. She stormed into the cockpit and complained loudly about the lewd passenger. The captain said there was little he could do, and asked her to put up with the bird’s behaviour until they had landed.
The next time she walked past, the Sikh got into the act, and pinched her. This time, she blew up and threatened to resign if the captain took no action. ‘OK,’ he replied. ‘Throw them both out of the plane.’ As the two fell from 30,000 feet, the parrot asked the Sikh: ‘Sardar Ji, can you fly?’ When the panic-stricken man said no, the bird unfurled his wings and asked: ‘Then why did you take a punga with the hostess?’
‘Punga’ is not an easy Punjabi word to translate, but it roughly means to provoke somebody without good reason. What I want to ask Asif Zardari is why he has taken this huge punga with Nawaz Sharif if he didn’t have the numbers and the support necessary. As the country braces for the lawyers’ long march, people and pundits are talking openly about the very real possibility of another military intervention. Fortunately, the present military leadership seems to have little stomach for a coup, but they could be pushed into one through the instability instigated so unnecessarily by Asif Zardari.
After last year’s elections, and Zardari’s elevation to the presidency, the abiding image was of a beaming president who would warmly hug anybody who came within reach. He agreed with everybody, promised everything asked of him, and appeared to be the long-awaited messiah with the healing touch. Many of us thought that a decade of jail had matured him, and that he would be a genuinely conciliatory leader.
However, a year in power has apparently gone to his head, and he has fallen into the trap of thinking himself invincible. This pattern is a familiar one, alas. Once generals start saluting, and the sirens blare as the presidential motorcade forces all traffic off the road, the passenger in the bullet-proof limousine begins to think that all this pomp and glory are permanent. With the awesome power of the state behind him, Zardari no doubt feels that nobody, and certainly not Nawaz Sharif, can oust him.
And yet he needs to reflect on the fate of his predecessor, as well as on his late wife’s removal from office on two separate occasions. Even though he is no student of history, Zardari has personal experience to guide him, as well as to warn him against the perils of hubris and arrogance. In Pakistan, power is transient unless you can prefix ‘general’ to your name. And even then, the manner of your departure is as unceremonious as it is unpredictable.
For people like me, the PPP is much easier to support when it is in the opposition than when it’s in power. It is true, of course, that the dictates of executive power are very different from those that operate when a party is in the opposition. Nevertheless, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was autocratic and vindictive, and made enemies unnecessarily. His daughter, a much gentler and wiser human being, nonetheless gave the impression of condoning her husband’s alleged corruption. Due to the difficult circumstances under which she took office, she disappointed liberals who had perhaps unreasonably high expectations of her government.
Now Asif Zardari has, through a series of entirely avoidable steps, thrown the country into turmoil. First of all, there was no need for him to make repeated promises to restore deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry when he had no intention of doing so. True, this might have caused Nawaz Sharif to withhold support for the newborn coalition government, but at least Zardari would not be suffering from the huge trust deficit he does now.
While I normally expect politicians to be economical with the truth, the good ones leave some wriggle room through which they can escape if cornered. Zardari, on the other hand, has given a signed oath to restore Iftikhar Chaudhry on which he has reneged. Although politicians spin and dissemble all the time, they do need to have a certain amount of trust in reserve, otherwise nobody would do deals with them. And deals are at the centre of any democratic system.
Even as Governor Salmaan Taseer is busy trying to stitch up support for the PPP-led coalition he and his boss are trying to cobble together in Punjab, MPs must be asking how they can trust them. After all, when you buy a horse for an agreed price, the seller must be sure he will get the promised sum after he hands the animal over. If he does not trust you, he will ask for the money in advance. But how do you hand over a ministerial portfolio before the government has been formed? So the horse-trading will be on a cash-on-the-barrel basis.
All indications are that the Supreme Court was told to rush the anti-Sharif judgment through quickly, so the Punjab government could be dismissed before the lawyers’ agitation began. Zardari no doubt feared that with the Sharifs in power, the threatened long march would be a major destabilising event. The ongoing crackdown against lawyers and civil rights activists like Tahira Abdullah would not have been possible with Shahbaz Sharif as the province’s chief minister.
Judging by his actions, Zardari seems to have forgotten that the government of the country’s largest province cannot be lightly dismissed. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sacked the Balochistan government in the mid-1970s, he triggered far-reaching consequences that eventually spun out of his control. Dismissing a popular party from power in its home base may well have set into motion a series of events that can have an unknown impact in the years to come.
Although the future is uncertain, one thing is clear: Zardari has done himself and the country no favours by his ill-judged decisions. The only ones to benefit from this turmoil are the Taliban and their cohorts.

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