By Ayaz Amir
A week is indeed a long time in politics. Just last week the get-Zardari campaign was in full swing. Media gladiators — now very much the media’s vanguard — and assorted weather prophets were convinced (they had certainly convinced themselves) that he had to go. Indeed, that his departure was inevitable. They only differed about the timing.
Their first self-imposed deadline was September. When that passed — President Zardari, spending most of that month on a never-ending series of foreign visits — the deadline shifted to October. Then it was November, then December, some optimists being so specific as to propose Dec 7 as D-Day. But just in a few days all this feverish speculation, some of it accompanied by near-foaming at the mouth, has suddenly died down, all because of two developments:
(1) The note of defiance struck by Zardari at a meeting of the PPP Central Executive at which he declared that no matter what his enemies said, the PPP would not succumb to pressure and would continue its “forward march”; and
(2) Nawaz Sharif’s clear affirmation, leaving nothing to doubt, that if there were any threats to the democratic system he would stand in the way.
Nothing has fundamentally changed. We could do with a more effective government at the centre, and it would be in everyone’s interests if fewer skeletons rattled in Mr Zardari’s many cupboards. But the dark clouds massed on the horizon have receded, revealing an open sky.
And media gladiators have gone silent. Which doesn’t mean their gloomy prognostications will cease: that’s hoping for too much. But having received a rude shock in the form of the two aforementioned developments, it will be some time before they can work up vitriolic anger to the levels we saw in recent days.
True, they can no more abide Zardari now than they did before. But their hopes have been dashed and before the outline of things becomes clearer, perforce they have to rein in their enthusiasm.
The PPP’s defiance has played its part in this process. But the man of the hour is Nawaz Sharif, whose clear stance against any extra-constitutional move has been the decisive factor in halting the headlong charge of the minus-one brigade.
Once upon a time his detractors — of whom there was never a shortage — dubbed him as the quintessential man of confrontation. And to think that now he is the principal bulwark of the present democratic order. Which I suppose only goes to show the extent to which his political outlook has matured.
Zardari alone would be vulnerable — was vulnerable — to the array of forces ranged against him. Much as he and his camp may hate the thought, it is Nawaz Sharif who is holding him up — not, it goes without saying, for Zardari’s person but for democracy’s sake. Having gone through the mill and learning from bitter experience, Nawaz Sharif, more than most politicians, is not only aware but feels it in his bones that once extra-constitutional moves are afoot there is no knowing how and where they will end.
Minus-one, then, remains confined to not one number but acquires wider and wider dimensions. So it has been always in our history, not once but four times, each successive intervention leaving behind a richer crop of disaster than the one before. Why should it be any different this time?
But we remain slow learners. Even though the memory of Musharraf remains alive and fresh, here we were seeing a fresh army of enthusiasts hoping for some kind of miracle that, in their eyes, would cleanse the presidential stables. How precisely this was to be achieved they weren’t quite sure, but they were convinced that it would somehow happen.
Would Triple One Brigade move? No, no, that wasn’t an option. So what, then? Oh, bereft of all support, Zardari just couldn’t go on. His position was untenable. It was in his best interest if he stepped down himself; otherwise, he would be made to quit. But how? Oh, it would happen. This was mumbo-jumbo, more an articulation of belief and faith than any attempt at political analysis.
But it had Islamabad in its grip even if there was something completely surrealistic about these angry mutterings. The party was solidly behind Zardari, all too aware that even if his name was mired in controversy, as the keeper of the Bhutto flame he was the unlikely cement holding the party together. It was all calm and peaceful in the National Assembly, with not the slightest hint of discord. So, coming down to the technicalities of it, how would the get-Zardari operation proceed?
One expected scenario, of course, was that the NRO would be the bomb to explode in Zardari’s face. But sensing the mood in the National Assembly — which would have erupted in revolt if there had been an attempt to force the law down its throat — the Presidency, for once, acted sensibly, choosing discretion over valour and withdrawing the bill. This had a double effect. It rescued Zardari from the pit into which he was walking and it seriously confounded his enemies, who were hoping he would hang himself with this rope.
In a sense, therefore, if the tabling of the NRO in the National Assembly was the high watermark of Zardari’s troubles, the decision to withdraw it — under pressure, let us not forget — may be the starting point from where the pressure on him begins to ease. We shouldn’t find this mystifying. Zardari’s fortunes had hit rock bottom. From there the only way forward was up.
I think the political class as a whole and the media need to go through a refresher course in politics after the debacle of the minus-one brigade. Do we believe in democracy or not? If we do, we must abide by democracy’s rules. Zardari is elected president of the Republic and if his transgressions are so great that they are considered a threat to the country, there is a procedure under the Constitution for presidential impeachment.
That is the only choice anyone has, and if there are objections to it, then the only alternatives are: (1) the Iskander Mirza formula, whereby a group of generals, pistols in holsters, tramp up to the Presidency and demand and obtain Zardari’s resignation; or (2) the march of the Triple One Brigade. In either event we will end up with another general on horseback riding the nation’s back. Haven’t we had enough of such experiments? Have we forgotten Musharraf so soon and the disasters he brought in his train?
The Republicans hated Clinton and tried to impeach him. When the numbers in Congress did not support them they had no choice but to put aside their hatchets. If Zardari is impeachable — meaning that Parliament turns against him — that’s another matter. Barring that, time and history should take their course.
But the nation won’t survive Zardari, anguished voices proclaim. Please, let us have done with this self-serving argument used time and again to justify coups and adventurism.
When Bhutto was in power, the rightwing parties up in arms against him said the same thing. Bhutto for them was evil personified and his elimination — not just political but physical — they considered more pressing than the survival of democracy. The same argument was deployed by Ghulam Ishaq Khan, first against Benazir Bhutto in 1990, then Nawaz Sharif in 1993. Farooq Leghari invoked it against Benazir Bhutto in 1996, Musharraf against Nawaz Sharif in 1999. High time we overcame this passion for listening to the same old broken records.
Which doesn’t mean things shouldn’t change. Zardari would be doing everyone a favour — it would also be in his enlightened self-interest — if he learnt to check his horses and exercise some control over his itching fingers. If the nation is to regard him with patience — and this will test all the nation’s fortitude — he should also learn to show some consideration to the nation’s feelings.
There are enough skeletons in his cupboard. Having risen to the Presidency — a dizzying ascent not even Macbeth’s witches could have foretold — there’s no need why he should be adding to this collection.