Perhaps it's the advent of the hot, humid summer. Perhaps a function of excessive water-logging perpetuated by the seasonal monsoons. Or maybe just a collective hallucination engendered by ad nauseum power cuts reducing daily life to a staccato of stills. But there have been disquieting murmurs doing the rounds of Pakistan’s political environment. The first has been brilliantly termed the "minus one, two or three" formula. It suggests getting on with business unusual by banishing key leaders from the political process – President Asif Zardari, co-chairman of the ruling PPP, Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML (N) that sits in opposition, and enjoys public support, and possibly Prime Minster Yousuf Raza Gillani. Given that a concentrated campaign is underway to ensure that due democratic process is freed from future army interference and Pakistan is stabilized in the face of persistent existentialist threats, decapitating the political system by removing party heads is not smart. At best, it would lead to a vacuum filled by inexperienced fixers; at worst, a full-scale disintegration.
It would be easy to dismiss these rumors as the febrile grumblings of a population that is unhappy with gaps in the government’s ability to provide basic services, such as regular electricity and running water. Or even as an attempt to register disapproval with leaders seen as perpetually incumbent and unerringly incompetent. The disquiet is particularly unsurprising given that President Zardari enjoys all the general goodwill of a card shark at a friendly poker game.
Except that these murmurs, like anything else in Pakistan, do not emanate without motive, and seldom exist in a vacuum. There is always an agenda, and a queue of vested interests. For instance, the first Benazir Bhutto government saw similar grumbling, culminating in a full-blown ad campaign about corruption in her ranks. Taken initially as a sign of people tired of waiting for good governance, these particular machinations were bankrolled by none other than Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, a military offshoot that is not very answerable to civilian governments at the best of times.
These rumors could be the first signs of the military and intelligence services picking themselves up to interfere with the incumbent government that, albeit flawed, is a genuine product of democracy. They have progressed to the point where local daily newspapers run regular commentary on them, while their origins remain moot.
Then, there has been insidious but determined campaigns to embellish and reiterate accounts of corruption and incompetence during Nawaz Sharif’s second government before he was deposed by Musharraf’s coup in 1998. Again, these stories have no directly attributable source, but have become a regular fixture in the halls of power and beyond. So, cui bono?
The answer in this case seems to lead directly to the Presidency occupied by Zardari. Nawaz Sharif, as leader of the opposition, enjoys popular support. He used it to force the government’s hand to reinstate Chaudry Iftikhar as Supreme Court Justice. He is counting on it to push for criminal proceedings against Musharraf, and pressure the government to repeal the Constitution’s 17th Amendment and Article 58 2b) of the 8th Amendment – both of which hobble the office of the Prime Minister while giving sweeping powers to the President. It is very much in Zardari’s interest to dent Sharif’s political capital to ensure parity.
Coming to similar conclusions, Sharif has recently spoken out in public against what he perceives as character assassination, warning that cooperation with the PPP and the President would be rescinded in favor of confrontation if efforts to malign him did not stop within 48 hours. The challenge resonated within the establishment, and fleeting political camaraderie has been restored through hurried diplomacy and shuttered meetings.
The issue here is not the rumor-mongering and bickering itself, but the context. Pakistan is concurrently fighting its pet Taliban in the North Western province, trying to normalize relationships with India, dealing with destructive acts of spontaneous self-combustion by extremists, keeping separatist Baluchistan from becoming more cantankerous, overcoming electricity shortages and getting creaky industrial apparatus producing again - all while trying to ensure that the democratic process continues apace. In the face of such daunting tasks, Machiavellian canards are only grist for distraction’s mill. Lest we forget, the country has been jovially skipping around on the thin line separating a troubled country from a failed state, and has not moved very far from the precipice.
In times like this, it is worth remembering there have always been times like these. True. In most counties, such skulduggery would merely be the banter inherent in messy politics. In Pakistan’s current state of affairs, it portends upheaval because the process of democratic governance has all the current assurance of a tramp staggering under the cajolings of moonshine.
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