Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dancing on broken glass

By Beena Sarwar
(Courtesy DAWN)

PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf’s appointment of businessman and media tycoon Salman Taseer — his friend and a former PPP parliamentarian — as governor, Punjab, set off howls of protest from the PPP’s chief coalition partner, PML-N, as well as from what some arbitrarily call ‘civil society’ and others term the ‘chattering classes’.

The controversial appointment followed the PML-N announcement that its federal ministers were resigning because the pre-Nov 3, 2007, judiciary had not been restored by the May 12 deadline announced after the Murree Declaration.More important than this deadline though, was the PML-N and PPP’s agreement that the judiciary must be restored. This is a goal that the two parties agree upon and it is significant for their continuing coalition. Their differences arise in the modalities. Nawaz Sharif wants a dramatic political gesture, an executive order that underscores his stated commitment to the cause while Asif Ali Zardari, embittered by his own experiences at the hands of some of these judges, wants a constitutional package that strengthens the institution — as envisaged by the proposed 18th Constitution Amendment Bill.

The Murree Declaration itself was greeted with the incredulity reminiscent of the amazement that followed an earlier pact between the PPP and PML-N: the Charter of Democracy of May 14, 2006, signed in London by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, envisaging a joint struggle to rid the country of military rule. The second significant point for the coalition is that the two major parties realise the importance of ending the military’s interference in politics.

There are powerful forces at work playing up their differences and trying to drive a wedge between them. These include western powers like the US and the UK who are more comfortable with their man Musharraf and the PML-Q, than the wild card PML-N. Also ranged against the coalition are the Pakistani ‘establishment’ and its allies in the media where speculation is often presented as news. Together, these forces keep pushing the PPP towards the president and his ‘Q’ League.Zardari appears to be merrily playing into their hands, letting two deadlines lapse without restoring the judges and appointing non-elected persons to positions of power. And then he showed Sharif the proverbial stick with the Taseer appointment (the president reportedly rejected the other nominees).

The PML-N had until now been riding high, feasting on carrots in the high-stakes Punjab province where it remains in government as the senior coalition partner and has made thousands of transfers and postings. But the coalition remains intact as the PML-N remains on the treasury benches rather than the opposition in the National Assembly.The game of politics continues with Zardari requesting the prime minister not to accept the federal minister resignations and asking Taseer to curb his anti-Nawaz rhetoric. The third significant point about the coalition is that the PML-N needs it as much as the PPP does.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, reiterating that the deposed judges will be restored as soon as the modalities are worked out, termed the Pakistani people as ‘mature, intelligent and patient’, wanting ‘to give the government time’. He may well be correct but for most people, sky-rocketing prices are the most pressing issues and the description sounds like wishful thinking when it comes to ‘civil society’ and the lawyers.Certainly, pressure must be maintained on the government to fulfil its promises but grand rhetoric, dramatic gestures and street agitations will only endanger the coalition. This will make the PML-Q very happy as well as the foreign and domestic powers who want Zardari to join hands with Musharraf and the Q League.

In this situation, the All Pakistan Democratic Movement’s announcement of a national moot on June 1 to strategise about the government’s ‘failure to restore the deposed judiciary’ appears provocative and premature. What is needed at this juncture is a little more patience. It is unrealistic to expect that a mess which was in the making for years will be satisfactorily resolved within a couple of months.

Had the PPP not agreed to a deadline the PML-N would not have joined the federal cabinet to share its burden. The PML-N may privately hope for mid-term polls, but has commendably taken the public position of supporting the government and saying it should complete its tenure. After all, going along with the PPP pressure has proved beneficial before, since Benazir Bhutto convinced Nawaz Sharif to contest the elections instead of boycotting them.

Zardari has a tough act to follow. Thrown into the deep end by Benazir Bhutto’s murder, he does not have her experience, stature or statesmanship (her detractors maintain that she herself lacked the last two). He demonstrated flexibility and sagacity after her assassination, countering the slogans of ‘Pakistan na khapey’ and keeping the party together. He proved central in cobbling together a coalition government, countering the establishment’s old machinations of dividing the politicians and confounding critics who couldn’t even envisage a Sharif-Zardari alliance.

Persistent rumours about Zardari’s prime ministerial or presidential ambitions are still unfounded. Perceptions that the National Reconciliation Ordinance provides a cover to corruption persist even in cases that have nothing to do with the NRO. In any case, with the PPP in power, the Ordinance is irrelevant since the cases it waived were instituted by the government of the time.In the current fraught political atmosphere, a bit of breathing space to the main coalition partners may have long-term benefits. It is worth bearing in mind a plea Zardari made to a group of journalists, lawyers, artists and writers visiting Naudero to condole with him soon after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. “If we slip up and make mistakes, please be patient with us,” he said. “We are dancing on broken glass.”


totalban said...

give political parties some time. anything is better than musharraff or any other dictator.

Anonymous said...

Musharraf, political parties, politicians, are all criminals and they should be put on open trial. American & British ambassadors, on the other hand, should be immediately expelled from Pakistan, because both these terrorists are interfering in our political affairs. Nazi USA and Cockroach England are the two biggest War criminals of the contemporary world & we dont want their diplomatic presence in Pakistan.

Aqil said...

Dear Beena:
This is in reference to your recent article "Dancing on broken glass" in Dawn.

With due respect and apologies, for one thing, please at least do not say that the only disagreement between the PML-N and the PPP is in the modalities; this is clearly not the case and such a misrepresentation can only undermine your own credibility as an analyst. The differences over the CJ's tenure, the PPP's clear desire to retain Dogar and the judges inducted after Nov 3, the talk of increasing the retirement age to give Dogar a chance to become CJ, the plans for clipping the suo motu powers etc are not just about modalities; these are real disagreements in substance. Whether the judiciary is restored through a constitutional amendment or whether it's done through an executive order also involves a debate over possible implications going beyond just the means of restoration.

Moreover, you write:
"Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, reiterating that the deposed judges will be restored as soon as the modalities are worked out, termed the Pakistani people as ‘mature, intelligent and patient’, wanting ‘to give the government time’. He may well be correct but for most people, sky-rocketing prices are the most pressing issues and the description sounds like wishful thinking when it comes to ‘civil society’ and the lawyers."

Was inflation not the 'top' issue for a common citizen when you took part in protests and activism on other issues ranging from the hudood laws to Pakistan-India peace? Or when the PPP was trying to get milage out of the lawyers' movement last year after march 9?

I'm sorry but it is rather shocking and disappointing to see the above below-the-belt remark coming from a seasoned journalist and activist, who has herself very commendably spent a considerable amount of time and effort raising important issues (like the gender related ones) that a vast majority of Pakistanis do not necessarily deem important enough for the common man.

If we follow this 'wonderful' logic, your critics would be justified in labling you as a part of the 'chattering classes' focussing on some 'low priority item' instead of inflation.

Sorry, you can't arbitrarily pick and choose when inflation and the 'common man's problems' are the 'top priority' issues just in accordance with what suits the PPP.

Moreover, since you mentioned inflation, it also makes sense to try defining some broad contours of an honest attempt aimed at addressing inflation.

With regards to political parties, an honest attempt at addressing any problem needs to start from developing a team of competent people who can develop a coherent program. This program needs to be a part of the party's manifesto and shared with the public instead of spending all the damn time on personality centered rhetoric and emotional blackmail. A party is supposed to do its proper homework before coming into power so that it can get to work streight away. And contrary to any PPP rhetoric, its ability to let its team of economic managers do their work certainly does not get impacted by a peaceful street movement for the restoration of the judiciary.

While we saw your comment that inflation is more important for a common man than the judges' issue, we don't see any article from you raising this self-created weakness of the political parties which is a much much bigger hurdle in resolving inflation and other governance issues than any imaginary difficulties created by the lawyers' movement.

With reference to the media, a genuine effort at raising any issue involves covering it properly in detail and facilitating a quality debate. A part of the debate needs to be in a non-technical language that ordinary citizens can also understand.

How your comment "for most people, sky-rocketing prices are the most pressing issues" helps in creating a genuine debate on inflation (as opposed to making just a rhetorical pro-PPP cheepshot against the lawyers' movement) is far from clear.

If one got really interested in understanding inflation, one would also get into the link between inflation and money supply, and how the excessive budget deficit (govt spending more than it collects through taxes) makes excessive printing of money inevitable, which fuels inflation. Then one might also see corruption and misuse of govt funds as a major hurdle in controling inflation. And then, perhaps one would be more interested in siding with the judges who saved billions of rupees of the nation in a single case (steel mills privatization) than defending a thief like Zardari who needs the NRO instead of a fair trial because he fears getting convicted if tried properly.

If you are really pushed about inflation enough that you want to put it above the judges' issue on your priority list, that is also understandable (since it is perfectly fine for different people to have different priority lists). But then, you better be seen making a genuine and solid effort at raising the level of debate on inflation instead of just mentioning it to defend the PPP by making cheep remarks against the lawyers and their supporters who are at least putting a genuine effort into something they strongly feel about.

I am sorry for this strongly worded feedback and there is nothing personal but the way you and some other pro-PPP analysts and activists are writing and behaving is (unintentionally) doing serius damage. Democracy can not be strengthened by letting a political party take part in the destruction of an institution in the name of giving it time to work. And even if you disagree and somehow think that inflation is more important, then at least come up with some quality analysis on inflation instead of using it just for point scoring against the lawyers' movement.

Once again, my apologies if the above comments caused any offense.

Aqil Sajjad

gih said...

... and that's horrible story brother.