March issue 2009
Slide into Chaos
A crystal ball was not needed to forecast the sad sequence of events that have unfolded in the Punjab. Indeed, even those with no political connections at all seem to have known what was coming for days. The Supreme Court judgment disqualifying the Sharif brothers had been widely anticipated. There is no way of knowing for certain if directions to the judges had been issued by political leaders, or if the claim by the Sharifs that they had been offered a deal under which they would be permitted to hang on to power in the Punjab, in exchange for agreeing to ease off their demand for a full judicial restoration, is accurate. Official denials, of course, mean next to nothing given that there is so little credibility as far as the government goes. What has been proven, beyond any doubt, is that we need an independent judiciary; a judiciary that people trust and one that can be seen as operating outside the sphere of governmental control. The tragic lack of such a judiciary and the failure to undo the act of November 3, 2007, which brought in the PCO judges, has a part to play in the current crisis; indeed, the biggest part of all.
The generation of so much renewed uncertainty is, of course, a disaster for the country in more ways than one. The stand-off between the president and the PML-N, the split that has surfaced within the PPP with the prime minister stating his sadness over the events in the Punjab and the outpouring of anger on the streets, creates an ideal situation for non-democratic forces to act. Eyes have once more turned towards the men in khaki. Rumours abound of a ‘game plan’ that had been operational weeks ago; the unexpected violence of protests in Rawalpindi have buoyed these suspicions. There is conjecture that the sequence of events that continues to unfold may lead us straight into yet another period of autocratic rule. This, of course, would be a catastrophe for a nation that till today struggles to survive, engaged in a desperate bid to ward off the threat to its territory posed by the Taliban, and to its economic survival posed by years of fiscal mismanagement.
The real question is why President Zardari chose the path of confrontation. It seems obvious that he and the man who in the Punjab has become known as his henchman, Governor Salmaan Taseer, had been gunning for the PML-N government for months. Taseer’s rabid attacks on the Sharifs and their government could not have been made without backing from higher quarters. The question is why? Is it simply a blind lust for power that drives Zardari? We have seen such megalomania before. Does he wish to convert the province into a fiefdom, choosing brute force to do so, rather than opting for the far more arduous task of winning over the hearts and minds of the people? In his heedless actions, does the president not see that Pakistan, at this point, can simply not afford further tumult? The disqualification of the Sharif brothers immediately sent the KSE plunging downwards, just as it appeared to be making a slight recovery after a stormy six months. Its collapse has caused immense despondency in business circles. Pakistan’s new wave of trouble, too, is hardly likely to encourage the investment so badly needed to bolster a faltering economy. Indeed, money is flying out of the country in huge amounts, draining what remains of its resources. The process is likely to be expedited after the upheaval in the Punjab.
Much is, as yet, hidden in the shadows. The role of the prime minister has come into question. Is the split with the president real or is Gillani, by insisting he had been making every effort to achieve national reconciliation, simply trying to make himself look good? Beyond the rhetoric, there are hard facts to be faced — governor’s rule in the Punjab could have been enforced only with his consent. The court order in no way necessitated it. The path laid down by the constitution could simply have been followed and a new chief minister elected to replace Shahbaz Sharif. The reality is that Prime Minister Gillani did not oppose the move. It is possible that the rumours of a PML-N plan to dissolve the Punjab assembly and call fresh elections in the province may have swayed him, but regardless of this, the right thing was not done.
This has added to the current complications and delivered a blow to the democracy we so badly need. The worst traditions of the past continue, with animosity overtaking the goodwill that bloomed briefly after the February 2008 general elections.
In the immediate future, it seems likely that an effort will now be made to clobber together a PPP-PML-Q coalition in the Punjab. The pro-Musharraf party that people voted out so emphatically could, through a series of undemocratic deals, find itself back in power. This is a thought that adds to the sense of frustrated anger running throughout the province. The PPP’s new decision-makers seem unaware of the extent of damage an alliance would cause to their standing in a province that President Zardari had stated he wished to win back. He appears not to have made that key discrimination between conquest and power offered up through votes.
There is unpleasant talk in Islamabad that events in the Punjab could lead to other still more unsavoury measures. The possibility of new media curbs is said to have been discussed. The issue of the Long March, planned for early March by the lawyers, remains to be addressed and has now taken on added significance. We have entered a new corridor of uncertainty — and, at present, there is barely any light to be seen at the other end. Too many questions remain unanswered; a democratic government has once again been discredited and Pakistan once more sails through stormy seas, with no signs of shore yet in sight.