Dec 25, 2009

The NRO fallout

Talat Masood

The Supreme Court’s judgment declaring the maligned NRO as invalid has been welcomed for good reasons. It is considered a great triumph of the forces that have been struggling to establish the rule of law and the sanctity of the Constitution. The court’s judgment to strike down a law that gave protection to the corrupt will enhance Pakistan’s credibility both within and outside the country.

Nonetheless, there are some serious issues that cannot be overlooked. Firstly, the fate of President Zardari hangs in the balance. The immunity that the president enjoys is also in question. Even if the court does not take it away, because of the pressure building up against him he will find it difficult to continue.

But the stakes for him and his inner circle are so high that he is not going to yield easily. Already we a have a resolution from the Sindh Assembly in the form of a unanimous resolution reposing full confidence in his leadership. The “Sindh Card” could also be played if he and his colleagues feel that it might work.

Are the top leaders of other parties, the PML-N and the PML-Q any better, and have the military leaderships when in political power been corruption-free? The PML-N is playing the waiting game. It is not interested in rocking the system, knowing that it will be equally detrimental to its political future. Besides it would not like that old court cases of bank loans and others reopened.

It is indeed ironical that architects of the NRO were the military leadership and Americans and the British diplomats. This piece of legislation was supposed to act as a facilitator in transiting to democracy smoothly. The United States was of the view that this arrangement would bring stability. Instead it has given rise to serious complications. Gen Musharraf was on the defensive and highly compromised and needed a safe exit. The military hierarchy backed him on this issue. Cases against President Zardari and all the 8,000 or more beneficiaries were withdrawn deliberately to ensure mutual immunity. The NRO was a clear manifestation of the decay of all our institutions, and not just the PPP. There are also many cases of corruption that fall outside the scope of the NRO. Political parties, military, bureaucracy and the judiciary have to share the blame for where we stand today.

Nonetheless, we as a nation have to start somewhere and now that the judiciary is rightfully asserting itself full support should be provided by the government to comply with its judgment. As a large cross-section of sitting ministers, politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats are involved it is bound to adversely affect the functioning of the government as they will remain distracted in defending their cases.

At this time when the country is facing grave challenges and the government is already overwhelmed with the frequency of terrorist attacks, any further drop in performance will be only to the advantage of the militants. It will also have a serious impact on the economy as uncertainty will give rise to further flight of capital, drop in remittances and overall productivity. The projection for the annual wheat crop is also pessimistic, around 20 million tons, due to the poor rains. Industry and services are badly hit by power shortages and high fuel costs. Businessmen are finding it difficult to travel abroad due to visa restrictions and foreigners are hesitant to come due to the deteriorating security situation. A clear vision and an operational plan are needed to steer the country from this quagmire.

Prime Minister Gilani should seriously consider seeking the resignation of the ministers that are involved in corruption cases and replacing them with politicians with better reputation and capabilities to mitigate the damage. Surely, they could return to power if cleared by the courts. In any case, the prime minister has wanted to reshuffle the cabinet and bring new faces and this provides him with an opportunity of having a leaner cabinet and competent ministers.

The president can partially diffuse the pressure that is building on him by agreeing to repeal the 17th Amendment and transfer his powers to the prime minister. By taking these actions the slide to chaos could be arrested and the situation will stabilise. Otherwise, the good that was suppose to come out by declaring the NRO void would be lost. The power vacuum would be filled by the military asserting more influence over foreign, defence and domestic policies and militancy will get a new life and democracy will once again receive a serious setback.

Meanwhile, international concerns and pressures will intensify. Washington, taking advantage of the prevailing uncertainty, will ratchet up its pressure on the Pakistan military to expand the area of operations to North Waziristan despite the fact that it may not be in Pakistan’s best interest. India could also intensify its diplomatic and political offensive that Pakistan reign in it its militants, realising well that it would not be possible to open up several fronts. The domestic and international challenges indeed are very grave and demand a concerted national effort and prudent leadership at many levels.

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