Jan 1, 2010

Annus horribilis

Arif Nizami

Pakistan’s annus horribilis, which was the year 2009, ended on a sour note. As if the travails of the people struggling to survive under the scourge of endemic terrorism, hyperinflation and perennial shortages were not enough, the carnage in Karachi on the day of Ashura was termed as our 9/11 by one of the MQM ministers. Only a day earlier, the vitriolic speech of the president at Naudero on the second death anniversary of Ms Benazir Bhutto proved as a dampener on the already sagging morale of the nation.

Those who had hoped that the situation created after the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the NRO ultra vires had been somewhat diffused after hectic meetings between the president, the prime minister and the army chief were utterly surprised and disappointed by the tenor of the president’s speech. It was more confrontationist, the hallmark of a beleaguered opposition leader, rather than presidential.

The speech, if it was meant to boost the morale of the party workers, is bound to have the opposite effect. If the party chairperson who happens to be the head of state armed with powers under the 17th Amendment openly laments the real or perceived conspiracies hatched against him and seems utterly helpless to foil them, apart from having to leave the Presidency in an ambulance, what kind of confidence does it instil in the ordinary worker of the party?

Judging by the kind of pressures he has to face, the victim syndrome afflicting President Zardari is somewhat understandable. He probably feels that the apex court and the army, to oust him, have launched a pincer movement, or this is what some of his key advisors tell him. Apparently Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kiani’s assurances to the contrary have not been able to diffuse the situation.

In the light of conciliatory statements on the eve of Ms Benazir Bhutto’s death anniversary that the army and the government were on the same page, there was no need for such a hard-line speech. However, if actually “great conspiracies” are afoot to undermine democracy in Pakistan, Mr Zardari should have been a little more specific in identifying the hidden hands. With political institutions still weak, such conspiracy theories can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Those who have the most to lose should not throw caution to the winds.

If our chequered political history is any guide, leaders who have played the conspiracy card have not been able to retain power. The late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the early days of the movement against him in 1977 suddenly emerged in Sadar in Rawalpindi and declared he was the victim of an American conspiracy to oust him. He even angrily tore off in public a letter ostensibly written to him by then US secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Later, during the PNA movement, he appeared on national television angrily thumping and claiming that he was secure in his chair, only to be ousted by the wily Zia-ul-Haq a few months later.

Similarly, when in April 1993 tension between then-president Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif was at its height, Mian Sahib, on the advice of some of his hawkish advisors, decided to take him on. He addressed the nation on television, declaring that he will not take dictation any more. Within 24 hours President Ghulam Ishaq sacked him, of course with the blessings of the army chief.

Thankfully, the situation on the ground is not bad as has been portrayed by President Zardari in Naudero. Politics is not a zero-sum game anymore, with none of the major political parties inviting the army to take over or even wishing it. Politicians, whether in the government or in the opposition, are talking to each other, albeit hawks on both sides sound vitriolic in the media. Thankfully, their leaders are seen paying lip service to the system and placating each other.

President Zardari, in yet another article in the foreign media, has spoken about forces in the country that according to him were allied with dictatorship in the past are now threatening to undermine the legitimacy of his government. It is rather unusual for a head of state to write columns for foreign newspapers on domestic issues, and whoever is the president’s ghost writer is not doing service to his boss by writing them and getting them published. If such conspiracies are afoot they should be exposed and foiled within, as the US administration, in the ultimate analysis, would be perfectly comfortable in working with any government in Pakistan that serves its strategic goals.

The so-called Sindh Card has also come into play again, besides protestations to the contrary. On the eve of the Supreme Court decision on the NRO, there were orchestrated demonstrations in Sindh. Thankfully, Mr Zardari subsequently disowned the Sindh Card by paying lip service to the federation and chanting the slogan “Pakistan khappey” at the Naudero rally.

However, the Sindh home minister, Zulfiquar Mirza, thinks otherwise. He claimed on the eve of the rally that it was only on the advice of his party boss that in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Ms Bhutto two years ago, he refrained from chanting the slogan “Pakistan na khappey.”

The maverick Mirza, who is a personal friend of the president and husband of the speaker of the National Assembly, Fehmida Mirza, should have been sacked, on two counts. Firstly, by doing disservice to his party and Pakistan and secondly for failing to anticipate or take measures to prevent the immense loss of life and property in Karachi, which happened on his watch as home minister.

The Pakistan People’s Party is the largest political party of Pakistan with electoral support in all provinces of the country. It has historically bagged more popular votes than other parties in most general elections. Its founder died for Pakistan, whereas his daughter, despite formidable odds and danger to her life, returned to the country and was martyred at Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpndi.

Presently the president, the prime minister, the speaker of the National Assembly and the chairman of the Senate belong to the PPP. It is the ruling party at the federal level as well as in three provinces, and a coalition partner in Punjab. For it to invoke the Sindh Card simply does not make sense, unless the present party leadership is bent upon converting the party into a nationalist party of Sindh. Much earlier, when Hafeez Pirzada and Mumtaz Bhutto tried to play the Sindh Card party chairperson Ms Bhutto did not hesitate to show them the door.

Instead of painting himself into a corner, President Zardari should take a more proactive and pragmatic approach to the present crisis. Admittedly, Ms Bhutto’s second death anniversary was an emotive occasion for him and the party. But mere emotional outbursts will not resolve the issues which are of a serious nature and hence threaten his position as president and possibly the evolving democratic system.

The best approach will be to embark upon a consensus-building exercise across the political spectrum. Prime Minister Gilani is the best-suited person for this job. Repeal of the 17th Amendment is a promise made too often. The month of December, the latest deadline given by Mr Zardari, has also passed. Probably under the present circumstances his close political consorts will be advising him not to yield any constitutional powers. To empower the parliament and the prime minister, however, is the best recipe for strengthening the system and obviating the possibility of extra-constitutional formulas being applied.

Standards of good governance and transparency need to be upgraded by the presidency as well as the prime minister. The present culture of incompetence corruption and cronyism is eating into the entrails of the present system and has given way to general cynicism about fruits of democracy.

Measures that could symbolically indicate a change in direction need to be taken urgently. This could include bidding farewell to some of the known incompetent and corrupt members of the team. If at some stage President Zardari has to make a personal sacrifice to set an example, he should not hesitate to do so. The PPP secretary general, Jahangir Badar, claimed the other day that the army and the PPP are natural allies. However, the reality is different. It is time serious efforts are made to resolve differences between the civilian leadership and the military. And for that President Zardari should take the initiative.

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