Mar 5, 2009

A wish for self-destruction?

By Kamila Hyat
In the days before the Supreme Court delivered its widely expected verdict, disqualifying Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, tensions ran high in the PML-N camp. The possibility that the apex court may not perform to script was said to dismay the party leadership, which saw the immense potential an ouster of the Punjab CM offered the party in a country where martyrdom and victimization have been themes that run strongly through our politics. They were not disappointed. While Governor Salman Taseer and his mentor in the presidency gloat over what they see as a victory, the PML-N seems to have emerged as the real winner. Whether or not it forms the next government in the Punjab – and the number game now being played out suggests there is every possibility that, in a final humiliation for President Zardari, it could well do so – Nawaz Sharif and his men have been able to expose the PPP leadership. By showing the extent to which they are willing to go to any length to gain a grip on what they erroneously perceive as power – the PML-N has succeeded in depicting that party as a true force of evil. The attempt by the prime minister to extricate himself from this net and instead assume the 'good guy’ role is intriguing, in the sense that it throws further light on the strains at work within the PPP. There is much disquiet over the manner in which its affairs, and indeed those of government as a whole, have been completely taken over by a small coterie of mainly unelected people based within the presidency. The fault line between the president’s office and the prime minister’s secretariat has been obvious for some time. But despite this, the imposition of governor’s rule in the Punjab would not have been possible had the prime minister refused to sign on the dotted line. He cannot thus claim he is blameless. The fact that he still commands only limited support within his own party may also have an impact on the future course of events. The question is what these events will be. The long march is now of course a key focus of attention. The possibility of arrests ahead of the lawyers’ descent on Islamabad has come up. So has talk of restrictions on the media – both signs of rising panic levels in Islamabad. In Washington, in a side-step from the main purpose behind his visit, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in the US capital to meet with Afghan and American counterparts, has faced a barrage of questions concerning army plans if the situation in Pakistan worsens. He has answered with typical reticence and diplomacy. But this cannot disguise the fact that the actions of what is the most powerful force in the land always become a factor when there is upheaval. The gridlock of connections between the PML-N and the establishment cannot be entirely neglected either. There has been some conjecture that elements in various places concerned with mounting US pressure regarding the issue of militancy and Talibanization may have put heads together with individuals within or close to the PML-N. We cannot assess the truth behind these assertions. Many events in Pakistan take place behind an iron curtain of secrecy. The real facts regarding deals allegedly offered to Nawaz Sharif and his party concerning judicial restoration, which were apparently turned down by him, will never be known either. But there can be no doubt that many currents flow strongly below the surface in Pakistan, influencing at least some of what happens. There are indications that such tides have been in motion for some time, encouraged by the sheer incompetence displayed by the government in power. The paralysis within many ministries is the talk everywhere in Islamabad. Polls show immense public dissatisfaction with the way things are being run.The real question is why, just over a year after the elections of February 2008, a party elected to power with a clear cut majority, should be so completely bent on self destruction. Since that date, the national coalition has completely fallen apart, Mr. Zardari is now spoken of with loathing in many places, the democratic process in the Punjab has been disrupted by imposing governor’s rule and by trying to manipulate the outcome of the vote for a new CM and the levels of uncertainty everywhere have increased. Economic indicators, that had for some weeks been showing a few hesitant signs of recovery, have plummeted downwards once more. Businessmen report that foreign partners contemplating deals have hastily made an exit. The damage to the PPP itself too is immense. It is questionable whether it can ever recover. The Bhutto legacy alone cannot sustain it forever.Like those before them, the leaders who have opted to self destruct, opening up the gates to all kinds of dangers even in a situation where the risks are already high, have misinterpreted power. They have persuaded themselves that success lies in capturing assemblies or buying over members. They have forgotten that for any democratic force, real power can stem only from people. By abandoning voters along the wayside and opening up a vast distance from them, the leadership has left the country exposed to undemocratic intervention at some point in the not too distant future. It is also extraordinary that they should have adopted such a course at a time when armed insurgents threaten to wrest away vast tracts of land across the northern areas and the country continues to face what could be economic collapse. The move to set up 'mobile’ courts, widely seen as a bid to disrupt the campaign for judicial restoration, makes an already bad situation worse. The terror attack on the Sri Lankan team, which has left Lahore stunned, adds to the complications.It is true events in the country are often, to one extent or the other, orchestrated by invisible forces. Many within the media are aware of the way in which stories are, discreetly and not so discreetly, planted, rumours of all kinds fanned along. But the fact also is that the incompetence and lack of vision of elected leaders makes it possible for this to happen. It is true we lack democratic experience; that civilian governments are handicapped by factors that include intervention in their working and in some cases open attempts at sabotage.But such realities cannot be made the excuse all the time. There is after all, such a thing as simple common sense. As Bernard Shaw tersely commented, it is sadly not common at all. In Pakistan it seems to be particularly scarce. As a result of their lack of foresightedness, their self-centred lust for power and their inability to build the consensus we so badly need, Pakistan has been plunged into another crisis. At this point we can only wonder how things will unfold over the coming few weeks, which promise to be turbulent ones.

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