August Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

If the ruling party’s flag is flying at half-mast, understand why. The unabashed backers of General Pervez Musharraf are in a state of mourning. The understanding with the Peoples Party has come at their cost, and to their utter shame. And on top of it, their omnipotent managers, the likes of Tariq Aziz, former principal secretary to the president, and Brig Ejaz Shah (retd.), director of the Intelligence Bureau, along with some members of the top brass, are all convinced that it is the Muslim League that is singularly responsible for putting the general in such a tight spot.

Naturally, the League feels betrayed. Apart from their president, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussan, and the Punjab chief minister, Chaudhry Pervez Illahi, no other member of the party was in on the finer details of the arrangement with the Peoples Party. Still the Chaudhrys, whose declining fortunes do not yet resemble those of the last emperor of the Mughal Empire, are rather cut-up. In private conversations, they have been heard by reliable sources complaining about the great betrayal at the hands of General Pervez Musharraf. Their case is that while they stuck their necks out for the man and accepted all his political guidelines, at the end of the day and in an election year, they are being ruthlessly undermined by the final deal with their arch-rival, the Peoples Party.

“The mere suggestion that rules will be amended to remove the bar against third-time prime ministerial aspirants is enough to create a stampede in the party. Our MNAs take this to mean that Benazir Bhutto is the next prime minister, and therefore many will make a beeline to either join her or distance themselves from us,” said Chaudhry Shujaat to General Musharraf, according to a party source.

General Musharraf has not been totally oblivious to these concerns and has tried to reassure the shaken Leaguers that not all is lost. In his long interactive sessions with the inner core of the party, he has held out the promise to them that their “interests will be taken care of,” though always with the caveat that “national interest comes first.” Translated into simple language, this means that the Peoples Party will have to be brought back in its natural role as a central force which will work with the League to form a strong national government.

Needless to say such assurances have had exactly the opposite impact. Instead of pepping up the party morale, the inevitability of the Peoples Party being allowed a friendly playing field has dashed it. The League is besieged with problems. Although intelligence agencies’ political wings are still reporting that in terms of candidates, the Muslim League has a better collection than the Peoples Party, big chunks of party support are getting washed away in this flood of disappointment. League leaders admit that almost the entire south of Punjab is breaking ranks with the League, and those turncoats of the Peoples Party who had joined the general, are a particularly sorry lot these days. In other parts of the Punjab, the possibility of the return of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, former chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif have jolted the party ranks further. After all, the Chaudhrys never had a throne of their own: they were mere occupants of a political fortune that the Sharifs had built for themselves and which General Musharraf’s powerful establishment had taken over after the coup.

In Sindh, admit League leaders, a complete rout awaits the party as the sitting chief minister is running a separate political entity that neither takes orders from the League in Islamabad nor really cares about the concerns of the Chaudhrys.

Yet not everyone in the party is drowned in sorrow. Among these are the ones who were never loyal to the Chaudhrys. Some of them, including Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, have been pushing hard for an understanding with the Peoples Party and have also been involved in talking with foreign guarantors of the deal. Others who detest the Chaudhrys’ manner of working the party — and this is a large crowd, who cannot hide their happiness at the plight of the party leaders. For them, the Chaudhrys’ downfall is necessary to gain more space in the party and stake their own claim as front-runners and leaders.

But for all their problems, the Chaudhrys, and their League, cannot be written off completely. In fact, they still remain hugely relevant as the only political base that is available to General Musharraf. The Peoples Party is not coming back into the mainstream by asking for seats or manipulated results, and therefore will not be beholden to the general. The League, however, will remain his surest bet. No wonder serious consideration was being given to the plan that Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain should become the prime minister if the life of the present assembly is extended and oversee the implementation of the understanding with the Peoples Party. According to Chaudhry Shujaat’s close friends, last month it seemed almost certain that he would replace Shaukat Aziz as prime minister and would hold the post for a year as the tenure of the assembly would be extended after imposing emergency. That idea, they say, has faded into the background as a consensus has emerged in the presidential camp that he should get elected from the present assemblies and put up his candidature for the second term in uniform. To perform that important act, the general needs support. The League, though crestfallen and downtrodden, is still an anxious stagehand, ready to oblige.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.