Mar 6, 2009

Waters too deep for us

Ayaz Amir
I find it not in my heart to blame President Asif Zardari or smaller fry like his Punjab minion, Salmaan Taseer, for the mess we are in. They are just being themselves and I think most of us have a fair idea of where they come from or what their capacities may be. Whatever crew we have -- and Zardari, for better or worse, is the pilot on deck, Pakistan's apology for the great helmsman -- they are simply out of their depths. The problems confronting Pakistan are just too big for them. Zardari has his faults and shortcomings but even without them, even if his capacities were greater than what they are, he would still be out of his depth. Pakistan in the middle of the Sahara, or next to Burma and Thailand: who would pay any attention to it? Our geography is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in the sense that it gives us an importance beyond perhaps what we have done anything to deserve; a curse in the sense that being next to Afghanistan, Iran and close by the waters of the Persian Gulf, it has gifted us with problems far greater than our national ability to solve. First as a key member of anti-communist strategic alliances (CENTO and SEATO), then as frontline state in the first Afghan 'jihad', now as frontline state in the second Afghan 'jihad', Pakistan has been the focus of international attention that it could have done without. Better leadership could have turned the curse of geography into a huge dividend. But leadership in the true sense of the word is something we have not discovered. Something at work in our history has given us mostly a startling cast of incompetent humbugs as our rulers. From Ghulam Muhammad down to the paladins presently in command covers a tale rich in both tragedy and comedy. True, we have no monopoly on corrupt or incompetent leadership. Corruption in high places may not be a universal phenomenon but it is pretty widespread. (In neighbouring India, to go no further, corruption charges were levelled against two prime ministers: Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao). But because our second curse is to live in unusual times -- our affairs perpetually either most interesting or unusual -- Pakistan is in a lesser position than most other countries in the same league to afford the gift (or risk) of third-rate leadership. Yet third-rate leadership seems to be our unalterable destiny. Once we are reconciled to this circumstance everything else falls into place, our shenanigans falling into the realm of the comprehensible and the predictable. Then it no longer is a matter of surprise to contemplate why Zardari with so many other problems on his plate, has thought fit to open another front in Punjab. The government makes peace with the Taliban in Swat, a peace considered by many as little better than capitulation. Yet out of the blue, Zardari declares war against the Sharifs. If he were successful it would be another matter. But no sooner he launches his offensive, he finds himself bogged down. Taseer is too small a political figure to turn Punjab. The Chaudhrys of Gujrat, their ambition outstripping their ability to perform, fail to deliver. To the chagrin and consternation of the presidency, the PML-N retains its dominance in the Punjab provincial assembly. All of which emphasizes the futility if this call to arms. We could have done without the tragedy of the attack on the Sri Lankan team which will remain an ugly blot on our standard. But, amongst other things, what it has underscored is the administrative drift and vacuum in Punjab in the wake of Shahbaz Sharif's removal as chief minister. Shahbaz Sharif may have had his faults but that is hardly the point. Taseer is no patch on him. We are hearing that the Sri Lankans were promised VVIP or even presidential-level security. We are getting it wrong. By agreeing to visit Pakistan when no other team was willing to do so, the Sri Lankans were doing our nation a hard-to-repay favour. They deserved more than presidential-level security. But that would only have been possible if the state of Pakistan, as personified by its president, was not preoccupied in playing games with itself. The Dogar Supreme Court, under attack from all quarters for being the dubious child of General Pervez Musharraf's illegitimate emergency, in its right senses would not have taken the disqualifying action that it has against the Sharifs, knowing that this would spark nation-wide turmoil. But that would have required wisdom, both in the Supreme Court and the presidency: wisdom, the one commodity hardest to come by in the higher councils of what we, without the least hint of irony, choose to call the Islamic Republic. Zardari can still get out of the mess he is in if he backtracks and simply ensures that the Punjab assembly is called into session to enable it to elect as chief minister whoever commands a majority. That would bring down the political temperature immediately. Even the lawyers' march then would not look like the problem it does now. But to have second thoughts and backtrack requires leadership and wisdom. Precisely for this reason it is hard to see this happening. Zardari is sure to put conditions which the Sharifs would feel honour-bound to reject. So the impasse instead of dissolving would become stronger. Democracy already rests on weak foundations. As this crisis lengthens it requires little genius to figure out in which direction thoughts in GHQ will stray. This crisis makes no sense at all. It is stupidity raised to the power of concentrated folly. That it is bad for Pakistan goes without saying. It is also bad for Zardari who is being undone by antics and manoeuvres which are wholly unnecessary. Where I sit in the National Assembly, behind me a bit to the left sits President Zardari's sister, the elegant Feryal Talpur. To her credit, and much to my admiration, I have never seen her losing her equanimity or looking out of sorts even when her brother is being attacked. Most of the time even when assembly proceedings get a bit rough there is a half-smile playing on her lips. Someone who, in such circumstances, can carry herself thus cannot be without her share of sense and good judgment. Therefore on many an occasion I have found myself looking back furtively and wondering whether she is not able to tell her brother what is in his best interests and what is not. Or am I exaggerating her standing at court? Of the mostly unelected adventurers who form the presidency's inner coterie not much is to be expected. Those suspecting that they pander to the worst instincts or the worst misjudgements to be found in that exalted mansion may not be entirely wrong. Dr Babar Awan, whom I religiously continue to call doctor even if a Google search won't reveal the university from which he got his doctorate, is a friend. So let me not be caught saying anything about him. Farooq Naek, the law minister, is in a class of his own, greatly given, according to some accounts, to pomp, circumstance and protocol. Once a civil judge, he now has a whole army of senior judges to play around with. His advice may not be to anyone's good, or for that matter the country's good, but that's a small price to pay for being the boss of bosses as far as the higher judiciary goes. We need to steady our horses and think about where our country is headed. For reasons beyond our control -- geography and the American interest in Afghanistan -- and for some reasons wholly in our control, we are going downhill. Not only is there a growing chorus at home fearing this, but international voices too saying the same thing. We all need to take a few steps back. President Zardari must look up this quotation from Euripides: "Among mortals second thoughts are always best" (a quotation, I am afraid, I deploy a bit too often). To save Pakistan and himself he must go for second thoughts in Punjab. Ending of governor's rule and election of a chief minister abates (not defuses) the present crisis. But as first steps go it is not a bad thing. Once this first step is taken other subjects, including the long march, can be discussed. Although I do tend to think that anything in which my good friend Maulana Fazlur Rehman is involved is doomed to failure from the start. But for the country's sake let's hope it is different this time.

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