In recent weeks talk of regime change has reached a crescendo. Those media pundits who were previously giving deadlines for an army-backed intervention are now talking of an in-house change being on the cards.
In this backdrop, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is sounding increasingly belligerent in his utterances. During his recent speech in the National Assembly, taking a dig at those who are clamouring for a government of technocrats, the prime minister said that technocrats couldn't have two rides on one ticket. "If they are keen to rule they should contest elections," he added. The prime minister is certainly unhappy with the state of affairs. The other day he told me that another judicial murder (meaning his) is in the offing. According to him there are forces in the country that are ideologically against PPP rule. He said that today even the detractors of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, including those in the judiciary, concede that his was a judicial murder. Similarly, he contended that Ms Benazir Bhutto was removed from power by the very same forces and ultimately assassinated.
It is obvious to everyone that the higher judiciary and the government are on a collision course and tension is incrementally rising. A recent manifestation of this alarming trend was when the prime minister asked for a list of those who had benefited from the NRO. On the very same day the Supreme Court, clearly showing its annoyance with the executive, sent former spymaster Brig (rtd) Imtiaz Ahmed and the recently appointed and removed managing director of the ODGCL Adnan Khwaja to jail. The dramatic arrest of both NRO beneficiaries sent shivers down the spines of all those tainted by Musharraf's nefarious ordinance.
The mood in the corridors of power in Islamabad is glum. It is being felt that the military, or sections of it, that are in no position to overtly intervene, are now playing poker through their proxies. And there is no dearth across the political spectrum of those willing to do the military's bidding. There is apprehension amongst the ruling elite that there is a military-judiciary axis, similar to the one that almost ousted Nawaz Sharif as prime minister in 1999. This is a clear indication that despite Gen Kayani's getting a three-year extension, civilian-military relations are not good.
A few months ago, Wikileaks indicated that the ISI was in cahoots with the Taliban. There was a feeling in the establishment that this was done at the behest of the US administration and that the Pakistani government did not stoutly defend its spy-agency. Consequently, when British Prime Minister David Cameron implicated the ISI on Indian soil, it was announced by the ISI that its chief would not travel to Britain for a professional visit. However, the government claimed that no visit had been scheduled and the statement was made merely to embarrass President Zardari who had embarked on a visit to the UK despite being advised otherwise.
Another related development is the shotgun marriage between the PML-Q and PML-F. The Pir Pagaro and Chaudhry Shujaat have not been on speaking terms for years, since the octogenarian Pir insulted Chaudhry Shujaat when the PML-Q leader went to visit him on a mission at the behest of Musharraf. Perhaps what had produced the change in attitude now is the fear of Musharraf expropriating the Muslim League, or the apprehension that if the former dictator is able to return to head a political organisation he might cause embarrassment for some who had been at the helm of affairs under him. In any case, it is well known from where the Pir takes his orders. Similarly, Chaudhry Shujaat is not known for anti-establishment views.
Sadly, all this is happening at a time when at least 20 million are homeless, the infrastructure has been destroyed and the economy is in ruins as a result of the worst floods in our history. The economy was in the doldrums even before the floods played havoc. The country's virtual bankruptcy has given an impetus to efforts by those who want the present government to pack its bags. The prime minister thinks that his government's performance under the present environment has been above average. But this view is not shared by most people. More than the tales of corruption, nepotism and cronyism about it, the government's sheer ham-handedness with governance has inexorably damaged its credibility.
Despite the cacophony for change, the government and the ruling party is doing little to set its house in order. On the contrary, President Zardari, believing in conspiracies against his party, real or imaginary, is not willing to budge. A ray of hope is his latest instructions to his Punjab party stalwarts to bear with the PML-N for the sake of the system. Fresh contacts with democratic political forces in the country are also a step in the right direction. Those engaged in number-crunching within parliament predict that if the MQM withdraws its support, a no-confidence move against the prime minister will succeed. They say that, taking their queue from the establishment, members from FATA and different factions of the Muslim League (minus the PML-N) will also fall in line to vote against the prime minister. Easier said than done. Perhaps it will be relatively easy to oust Yusuf Raza Gilani through a no-confidence move in parliament and in the process defang Asif Ali Zardari. The difficult part will be to form a stable and viable government without the PPP and the PML-N. Mian Nawaz Sharif, wary of the army, is against any khaki-tainted change. Neither has he any love lost for the MQM, notwithstanding Ishaq Dar's much-hyped visit to Nine Zero to condole Dr Imran Farooq's death.
Of course, if there is a stalemate, the parliament will be dissolved and a caretaker government will be formed to hold fresh elections. Those against the system hope that, with a little help from the Supreme Court, this caretaker period could be extended on the plea that the situation is not conducive to holding of elections. As a result, a "government of technocrats" will be formed. Some mavericks go to the extent of saying that this military-backed government sanctioned by the courts will give a new constitution banning the established politicians from the arena.
Many of these pundits have their own vested interests in dismantling democracy, while there are others who, out of sheer naiveté, want the system to be changed. Apart from the economic crisis, little thought is being given to the future of Pakistan as a federation. Balochistan, thanks to Musharraf's trigger-happy policies, is on the brink of secession and, despite what the Pir Pagaro says, the PPP is not a spent force in Sindh. For the politicians to close their ranks is the obvious solution to the present crisis. But this is easier said than done. Mr Zardari, having the bigger stake in the system, needs to do more than merely reining in his hawks in Punjab. He needs to bridge the wide credibility-gap between the PPP and the PML-N.
Since it takes two to tango, Mian Sahib, despite his bitter experience in dealing with the PPP, will also need to be flexible to overtures. The PML-N gains nothing and has everything to lose if the present system goes. The kind of unanimity shown by parliament on a mischievously timed Pildat report about members enriching themselves should be extended to other issues, especially those relating to the economy and the aftermath of the floods. Instead of being afflicted by the victim-syndrome President Zardari and his prime minister should set their own house in order. This should include reducing the size of the government, getting rid of corrupt and incompetent ministers and demonstrating competence and professionalism in governance.
But it is already getting too late for the status quo to continue, as the way events are shaping up, something is bound to give. This will be detrimental to the interests of Pakistan.