February issue 2012

By | News & Politics | People | Published 12 years ago

Yousuf Raza Gilani is the accidental prime minister. After Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, a lot of names were bandied about for the post. Amin Fahim was an early favourite but he was deemed to be too independent for Zardari. Once the PPP won enough seats in the 2008 elections to form a coalition government, it seemed like the post of prime minister would be decided by a tussle between Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar. Somehow, Gilani snuck in and grabbed the position.

The early consensus was hardly favourable to Gilani. He was widely viewed as a pliant puppet, someone who was there only to ensure that there was no internal threat to Zardari within the PPP. He would keep the seat warm for five years, not interfere in the president’s running of the country and then be warmly thanked for his services.

Now in the last year of his term, Gilani has shocked everyone. Out of all the senior leaders in the party, his is the last name one would associate with stinging criticism of the army. His political career began in the lap of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq and he joined the PPP only in 1988, not out of a strong belief in the supremacy of democracy, but because of personal differences with Zia’s blue-eyed boy Nawaz Sharif.

Sometime towards the end of 2011, as the Memogate controversy threatened to engulf the government and the Supreme Court was targeting Gilani himself over the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), the Prime Minister found his voice. He said that as Prime Minister he was answerable only to the people, he more or less told the army to stop interfering in matters constitutionally left to civilians and personally attacked both the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and ISI Chief, Ahmed Shuja Pasha. When the army was making a noise about the violation of our sovereignty by NATO forces, Gilani asked aloud who granted Osama bin Laden a visa to stay in the country. The man who got his start thanks to the army has now become its most eloquent and effective critic.

But it would be too glib to say that Gilani has only just discovered the value of democracy and the major role the military plays in undermining it. After all, it is worth keeping in mind that for every broadside he launches against the military leadership, Gilani follows it up with a day or two of conciliatory statements. The effect he gives off is slightly schizophrenic, but what we are actually witnessing is an astute political mind in action.

Gilani has decided to opt for the path of controlled aggression. He is making it clear to everyone that the army is meddling in the government’s affairs and indeed has kept the entirety of foreign policy to itself but he is not crossing a line where the army has no option but to remove him for what they must surely perceive as insubordination. Rather, the PPP is using a good cop/bad cop strategy against the military, where Gilani is somehow both the good and the bad cop at the same time.

Those who have been surprised at this supposed Gilani turnaround have obviously not been following his stint as prime minister. He has been a far more important figure than anyone imagined, and that the government is still around is largely due to Gilani’s efforts.

The first real challenge faced by the PPP government was the fight over the restoration of the deposed Supreme Court judges. Knowing that the judges would take away the amnesty granted to them by Musharraf’s NRO, the PPP was reluctant to restore them. The PML-N, meanwhile, had hitched its band to the Supreme Court wagon. That a solution was eventually worked out was due to Gilani’s leadership, where he negotiated with Nawaz Sharif and Kayani and then, most importantly, convinced his own party to accept something they were greatly opposed to.

Apart from that, even as the PPP’s, and especially Zardari’s relations with the PML-N broke down, Gilani was still widely respected by the opposition. The general feeling was that this was due to Gilani being little more than an amiable dunce. Now that he has gone on the offensive though, even sacking the military’s man in the position of defence secretary, we can see that Gilani’s goal throughout was to keep the party in power. Like many in the PPP, he has been a loyal party member. Unlike many in the party, however, he has been flexible, willing to compromise when needed and then go on the attack if necessary. And if he ends up staring the army down and surviving, Gilani could end up altering the civilian-military balance in the country in favour of the civilians. Not bad for someone who was merely supposed to be a placeholder prime minister.

This profile was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Good Cop, Bad Cop” as part of the cover story “Retreat From the Precipice.”

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.