Mar 6, 2009

Smoke, but no fire yet

Cyril Almeida
If the move was meant to buy time to cobble together a PPP-led government in the province, that plan has fallen through. The PML-Q is still split and the Sharifs have emerged stronger, while most of the PPP’s partners at the centre and in the smaller provinces have reacted with dismay. Never say never in Pakistani politics, but surely this could not have been the script Zardari had in mind.
There is another possibility. Governor’s rule may have been meant to foil the black coats and their political supporters intent on besieging parliament to restore the court of CJ Iftikhar. The thinking may have been, rob the lawyers of the oxygen of the Punjab government’s support and the threat is likely to melt away.
But upending the provincial government always ran the risk of sending the Sharifs into a tighter embrace with the lawyers and having to then directly take on two groups instead of one. A smaller headache has now become a full-blown migraine, and even if the lawyers fail, Punjab will remain a tinderbox.
In any case, fear of the lawyers led to Zardari’s second mistake: the mobile-courts ordinance. Forced to withdraw the ordinance on the PM’s mandatory advice, Zardari has been exposed as someone who is clearly not the only master of his domains, the PPP and the government.
For the speculating hordes, it was enough that PM Gilani met Gen Kayani the day the prime minister, for the first time, publicly disagreed with his boss. All is surely not well in the Zardari kingdom.
But does that mean Zardari should be packing his bags?
Not so fast. Zardari is nobody’s favourite, that’s for sure. But like him or hate him, politics is about the art of the possible. And right now Zardari, despite the serious hits he’s taken in the last week, still holds the best cards in the game.
Start with his own party. While opponents may be hoping for a feud between Zardari and his coterie of ‘outsider’ advisers and the inner core of BB’s PPP, that isn’t about to happen. The party’s leaders are simply too disciplined, or, depending on your perspective, pusillanimous, to mount a coup against their leader. They may chafe under his authoritarianism, resent his personal slights, disagree with his policies and loathe his cronies, but, left to their own devices, they will not do anything to jeopardise the party’s position.
Aha, say the conspiracy theorists, but the army may goad Gilani into challenging his boss, secretly assuring him of their support if push comes to shove and it’s either the PM or the president who will be left standing. But even now that’s more wishful thinking than genuine possibility. Sure, the army doesn’t really like the PPP, and probably likes Zardari even less. But the generals aren’t running a Ms Congeniality contest, they’re running the security policy of a nuclear-weapons state beset by internal and external threats.
Is Zardari a hindrance to those policies? He and his government have occasionally been a nuisance. The off-the-cuff pledge to reject a nuclear first strike, the attempt to wrest the ISI away from the army and the offer to send the DG ISI to India were all slapped down. But a year since it’s been back in power, differences between the PPP and the army on the big issues — India, Afghanistan, the US and militancy — are hard to find. As long as that continues, the truce between the two institutions will hold. Talk of ‘American agents’ and an agenda to ‘destablise Pakistan’ is pie-in-the-sky stuff.
Well, that still leaves the Americans and they are unhappy, the conspiracy theorists will argue. But unhappy about what? Sure, the Americans can’t be pleased with Zardari putting a domestic power grab at the top of his agenda.
Yet, there is often a fundamental misunderstanding of the Americans’ role in Pakistan. Far from micromanaging Pakistan, the Americans often react to autonomous local decisions and try to make the best of what comes their way. When asked about the myth of the US puppet master, the Americans sigh. They wish they had that kind of power. In reality, they often have to settle for the acceptable rather than the preferable.
Currently, in Zardari the Americans have as good a partner they can find. At least they have a working relationship. What’s the alternative? Nawaz Sharif? That’s just grist to the rumour mill. In private, Sharif worries about his unacceptability, both to the Americans and the army.
And he has reason to. Since his return to politics, he’s had the luxury of being in the opposition, from where he can be a populist and avoid having to make hard decisions, and the compromises, that being in power demands. But there are unsettling hints that Sharif hasn’t learned the lessons of the ’90s.
Reflexively obstinate and single-minded to a fault, there is every chance that he will take a very different line to the army’s or the Americans’ once in power. What then? So better the devil the army and Americans already know will play ball than the devil who may set his own rules.
But even before that, instability right now distracts the country from the war against militancy. Flux at the top is contrary to the Americans’ interests.
So Zardari is safe for now. What he isn’t safe from are his instincts. It took Benazir three decades to come to terms with the intricacies of Pakistani politics. Zardari has been playing the game for little over a year. There are two keys to navigating the minefield of Pakistani politics: accept that offence isn’t always the best defence and never leave your opponent with no choice. Zardari appears to have grasped neither yet.
Nawaz Sharif may have been cornered by the hawks in his party and the lawyers into continuing to fly the flag for CJ Iftikhar but it’s the dismissal of the Punjab government that has shut his party out of the system. No government in Punjab, no way into Islamabad, isolated from the army and the US, he has one major pillar of support left: the public. Why shouldn’t he run with it?
And if panic spreads in the Zardari camp as the lawyers’ march nears, it may yet force more errors that will assume a logic of their own. From there, the point may not be far off when the powers-that-be accept change as the lesser evil.
That’s not inevitable yet. History though is replete with examples of men who thought they could conquer all but ended up vanquished instead.

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