Milestone of sorts

Print edition : April 19, 2013

Asif Ali Zardari. He has emerged as a shrewd manager of allies, pandering to their wishes and showing great survival instincts and enormous patience. Photo: Caren Firouz/REUTERS

A security guard frisks a man outside the election campaign office of the former President Pervez Musharraf in Karachi on March 28. Photo: ASIF HASSAN/AFP

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at an election rally in the north-western town of Mansehra on March 25. Photo: AFP

At the entrance to Pakistan Army's headquarters in Rawalpindi. Photo: REUTERS

The site of a car bombing that targeted the minority Shiite community in Karachi on March 4. Photo: AP

Yusuf Raza Gilani. The former Premier paid the price for refusing to seek reopening of the graft cases against Zardari. Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

At a checkpoint in Hangu district after a bomb in a pick-up truck was detonated there on February 15. Photo: BASIT GILANI/AFP

The PPP-led government becomes the first civilian government to last its full term in Pakistan. But the compromises it had to make take away from the achievement.

GIVEN THE NUMBER OF EPITAPHS THAT HAVE BEEN prepared for the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition that ruled the country from mid-March 2008, celebrations are in order for the mere completion of its five-year term. After all, this is the first time since Pakistan came into being in 1947 that any civilian government survived this long and left on a day of its choosing.

So, yes, Pakistan’s democracy has turned a corner, but even diehard optimists will admit that this is just an early milestone on a slippery and trip-wired road that is this country’s democratic project. Cynics, of course, maintain that the only reason that the PPP-led dispensation survived is not some new-found love in the military for the “bloody civilians” but its own compulsions.

The military did flex its muscles whenever the civilians moved into the security establishment’s turf. Right in the infancy of his government, President Asif Ali Zardari learnt the tough way that the civilian-military relationship would follow the “man proposes, God disposes”’ adage on certain issues. What few people expected was for Zardari to be such a quick study, even if he has little to show by way of achievement—apart from survival—at the end of five years.

Indeed, there is a general consensus that not many Pakistani politicians could have managed to do what Zardari did: literally grin and bear his way through the perennially stormy politics that targeted his government and party with crises both real and manufactured. So, after early efforts to stare down the military, including his no-first-use nuclear policy statement and abortive bid to send the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Director-General to India in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks, the President and his government opted for the easy way out to survival by staying off subjects dear to the security establishment.

Consequently, national security and issues central to Pakistan’s existence, such as its relations with the United States, India and Afghanistan, remained the exclusive domain of the military though both sides continued with the facade of the civilians, including Parliament, having a say in policymaking. A few times the civilians were involved in these issues, but that was invariably when the military needed a fall guy to take the blame, as was the case after the Abbottabad raid in 2011 when U.S. marines killed Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in a compound so close to an Army facility that it was literally billed as the Army’s backyard.

In the in-camera briefing given to Parliament after the Abbottabad raid, the then ISI Director-General Shuja Pasha expected the provincial government, the local police and other related agencies to share the responsibility for intelligence failure. He had maintained that criticism of the security establishment at that particular juncture was not in the national interest as it would strengthen the enemy. The report of the commission set up to probe the Abbottabad raid is widely said to be a whitewash job that in all likelihood will not be made public, like most such “fact-finding” exercises in Pakistan.

Another case in point is the Central Intelligence Agency-operated drones. Though the U.S. was allowed to use drones to target terrorist hideouts in the tribal agencies during General Pervez Musharraf’s presidency and there is no way the CIA could have continued to pound targets inside Pakistan after his departure without military compliance, public anger was decidedly trained on civilians with the help of the security establishment’s “agit-props” (a euphemism for some of the right-wing organisations that are used by the powers that be to drum up rhetoric).

Those in the know of things claim that the CIA actually gives the Pakistan military a 30-minute heads-up before sending in the missiles so that security forces present in the area under target can be moved out. Consequently, despite the heavy security presence in the tribal areas, no one can recollect anyone in uniform having been even injured in a drone attack. Yet, the civilian government has taken the flak for the drone attacks, with even political parties, particularly cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, targeting the PPP for buckling under U.S. pressure and allowing the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Similarly, the civilian structure was held responsible for the deteriorating security situation when it is no secret that terrorist attacks began inside Pakistan as a blowback to General Musharraf’s decision to align with the U.S.’ war on terror, and most of the terrorists who have turned anti-Pakistan are essentially the security establishment’s “assets”-turned-rogue. Even now, after several thousands of people have been killed in acts of terrorism, the police plead helplessness in going after some of the religious right-wing organisations involved in sectarian violence because of the blessing they enjoy in some quarters of the Deep State.

Over the past couple of years, circumstances conspired to offer Pakistan several opportunities to go for an all-out war against home-grown terrorists. But in the crunch situation, a statement would come out of the security establishment calling for “political consensus” and that would be enough to have all politicians scurrying for cover for fear of risking their lives and political future.

Having bartered away its right to have a decisive say in matters of national security, there can be no holding a brief for the political class in general and the PPP government in particular. But its craving to survive, even if only by the skin of its teeth and after several compromises, is not difficult to understand given Pakistan’s history of frequent direct and indirect interventions by the Deep State.

One such was laid bare last year, courtesy a long-forgotten case, which was resurrected by the Supreme Court amid criticism of it going after the political class while remaining silent about the misdoings of the military. The criticism over the handling of the case that came to be referred to as Memogate prised open Air Marshall (retired) Asghar Khan’s petition to the Supreme Court filed in June 1996 and brought to light a well-known fact: that the ISI paid off politicians in the 1990s to keep the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from coming to power.

Of all the controversies that bogged down the civilian government, Memogate was the most threatening as it had the opposition and the security establishment on one side to run down the ruling dispensation, bringing back memories of the 1990s when the Deep State successfully kept the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) at loggerheads by playing one against the other.

After the Long March of 2009, which led to the restoration of the judiciary, the PML(N), particularly its leader Nawaz Sharif, avoided any direct confrontation with the government to the extent that the party began to be ridiculed as a “friendly opposition”. But when a Pakistani-American businessman alleged that the then Ambassador Hussain Haqqani had sought U.S. intervention to stop a military takeover after the Abbottabad raid, the PML(N) took the matter to court and brought back talk of a coup. Coup talk has been a recurring feature of the country’s political scene in the past five years, particularly because of the frequent stand-offs between the executive and the judiciary. One such resulted in the ouster of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani because he refused to write to the Swiss authorities regarding reopening of the graft cases against Zardari on the premise that the President enjoyed immunity. The President, the villain of the piece in many a drawing room chatter, has not been able to shake off his “Mr. Ten Per Cent” reputation, earned during Benazir Bhutto’s stint in power two decades ago because of the commissions he allegedly took for every deal signed by her government.

The government finally blinked and wrote the letter, but the matter died down along expected lines as the Swiss authorities refused to reopen the cases—one of the grounds being presidential immunity—highlighting the futility of an exercise that took up so much of the nation’s time.

All this notwithstanding, even its most ardent supporters admit that the PPP leadership provided little or no governance and was just interested in survival and making hay while it could. Bread-and-butter issues were left unaddressed, resulting in a crippling power and gas shortage that has forced most factories to close down and some to relocate to Bangladesh. Even now, when the summer has not set in, the federal capital has to deal with a minimum of six hours of load-shedding. If this is the state of affairs in the much-pampered Islamabad, can it be any better elsewhere?

Needless to say, the government insisted that these problems are not of its doing but a result of flawed policies of the past. Be that as it may, the crib against the government is that it made no visible effort to rectify those flawed policies and instead allowed matters to drift. The PPP now faces a clear and present danger of going into an election with heavy power cuts.

The Pakistan rupee has tanked under the PPP’s watch to now hover around PKR 100 to a dollar. The security situation has reduced investment to a trickle. The commercial capital, Karachi, sees so much bloodletting on a daily basis that it is a wonder any business gets done there.

Sectarian violence and attacks on the minorities are growing. Though the civilian dispensation cannot be held responsible for both since these attacks are a result of the “jehadi mentality” cultivated by the Deep State, many in civil society are disappointed by the PPP’s ostrich-like approach to dig its head in the sand. Despite its legacy of being a “secular”, left-oriented political party, the PPP has chosen not to stand up and be counted in the face of an onslaught of the religious right wing.

If anything, at times the government was found trying to outdo the religious right wing, as in the wake of the protests over the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims. The federal government called for a “national day of protest”, triggering a wave of loot and arson and the killing of 15 persons in a day. The government had obviously hoped and pleaded for peace when it announced the day of protest, but its assertion that any attempt to slight the Prophet was unacceptable translated into a free-for-all on the streets. This drew wide criticism from its supporters in the chattering classes who felt the PPP had asked for trouble by taking recourse to such an action.

The upside

All this and more on the downside. On the upside are the legislative changes that sought to block any kind of adventurism in future by the military and the presidency. For all his reputation of being a wheeler-dealer hanging on to office at the cost of everything else, Zardari carved for himself a place in Pakistan’s history by becoming the first President to give up some of his sweeping powers.

As part of the 18th Amendment to the much-mauled Constitution, Zardari ceded powers of the President to Parliament, making his office subservient to the elected representatives. That a slew of amendments—which included declaring the subversion of the Constitution “high treason” and removing the vestiges of military rule—were effected is no mean achievement, more so because it was done through consensus.

Another major achievement was the passing of the Seventh National Finance Commission Award in 2010. (The NFC Award is a mechanism for the distribution of finances to the provinces.) This, coupled with the transfer of several administrative matters to the provinces, has paved the way for the decentralisation of power. But the poor governance skills under employ are reflected in the fact that even three years after its constitution, the federal government was unable to communicate this devolution of power to the people well enough to redirect the flak that it attracted for the non-performance of the provinces.

As the general elections draw nigh, the PPP and its allies are bogged down by the anti-incumbency factor. Though the PML(N) is tipped to be the front runner, there is a reluctance to write off the PPP. Even some opposition leaders privately concede that if the PML(N) has only a lead of 10 seats over the PPP in what is bound to be a fractured verdict, then the Zardari factor is likely to come into play. Zardari has emerged as a shrewd manager of allies, pandering to their wishes and showing great survival instincts and enormous patience. This has earned him the encomium “ek Zardari sab pe bhaari”, which loosely translates into “one Zardari equals all others”.

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