Real crisis or a teacup storm? - Shafqat Mahmood - Friday, December 17, 2010

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As a media event, the JUI-F’s departure from the coalition was quite sensational. Is it for real, though, and will it affect the future of the PPP government? More importantly, is there an appetite in the power centres of the country for a change in the ruling dispensation?

Fazlur Rehman has always played his cards well and has been correctly described in leaked US embassy cables as more of a politician than a mullah. He inherited the Maulana bit from his father, and this prefix to his name is a reflection neither of his learning nor his religious accomplishment.

He also has a kind of special relationship with President Zardari that goes back twenty years. Besides political considerations, it is underpinned by the admiration two naughty boys have for each other. This allows all cant, verbiage and false pretences to be kept aside when they bargain.

And the “Maulana” did very well for himself this time. With just eight members in the National Assembly and some in the Senate, he garnered three ministries besides the chair of the Kashmir committee and the Islamic Ideology Council. Given this, it must not have been easy to give up the cabinet positions, or so it would seem. But has he?

Two possible conjectures can be made. One, that he has “divined” which way the wind is blowing and knows that this ruling dispensation is on its last legs anyway. He may have figured, why not appear principled while making a smart getaway? Or, with the MQM making threatening noises, he saw an opportunity in Swati’s sacking to get more for himself and his party.

Already, reports in the media suggest that as a price for coming back he has asked for the Religious Affairs Ministry besides those that his party already had. He is also asking for a public apology, to boot.

If the first conjecture is true, meaning that the government is nearing the point of implosion, there is little chance that the JUI-F will give in to any inducement. If, on the other hand, it sees no appetite for a change anywhere, it will get a larger pound of flesh and come back into the coalition fold.

Purely on the political front, there seems to be no real desire in the main parties to force the government to fall. The PML-N has indicated that it will not be a party to any vote of no-confidence. Its reasons are not difficult to understand. It has no desire to spearhead a weak alternative government and in current circumstances, midterm elections are not possible. Any move on its part to remove Gilani is likely to result in a hung parliament. Why should it shake the system when there is nothing in it for the party?

The last thing that the PML-N would want is a caretaker government installed with military backing that lasts for years, or until elections become possible. Either in this period, ground realities could change because of stellar performance by the caretakers, or if they fail, by the military intervening directly. Why would Nawaz Sharif risk such a scenario?

It is obvious, then, that, given the numbers in the National Assembly, without the PML-N directly becoming an active party, any no-confidence move is likely to be a non-starter. Most other parties in the coalition and outside also prefer a status quo. The only exceptions are the Q League – its many stalwarts still yearn for another man on horseback to rescue them from political oblivion – and the MQM.

While the military has publicly reiterated more than once that it will not intervene in politics, the conventional wisdom is that both the MQM and the major portion of the Q party would look for a signal from there. If it comes, they will do their part in destabilising the government, and if it doesn’t, everyone will go back to work on the same pay – to translate an Urdu expression.

What the military thinks of this government and its leaders is common knowledge, but let us speculate whether it would want this ruling arrangement to collapse. On the face of it, the answer would have to be no, but there could be exceptional circumstances which would push it in that direction.

What Gen Kayani has successfully done over the last three years is to rebuild the image of the army that had suffered due to Musharraf’s shenanigans. His strong stand against militancy and successful military campaigns in Swat and South Waziristan were the main factors, in which tremendous sacrifices were made by all its ranks.

But the army’s image was also helped by its not intervening directly in politics. It could have done this during the judicial crisis, but instead Gen Kayani played a positive role to diffuse it. If it comes upfront now, it would be putting all the positives in jeopardy.

On a more practical level, the military continues to exercise power where it wants. It has a strong, indeed decisive, role in security and foreign policy. In particular, its perceptions determine the relationship with two important players, the United States and India.

On budgetary issues, its needs are given priority even though the overall financial situation is very tight. On appointments to important positions, while the government has greater space, wherever the military feels strongly its viewpoint is carefully considered and often acted upon. While not in power, the military is certainly an important shareholder. Given this, why would it want a change?

Change can always have unforeseen consequences, and in this case, the military may wonder, the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. Besides, with the likelihood of an operation in North Waziristan looming large – long desired by the Americans – this would be no time for a prolonged political crisis.

It is for this reason that I believe the military would not want any change in the current ruling dispensation, even if it were in a position to bring it about. And this is not said idly, because any scenario without a direct intervention is difficult even for the might of the military to execute.

The exceptional circumstance I referred to earlier is a complete economic collapse. If the political class is unable to deliver on the RGST – and it seems it would not be able to – the IMF programme is dead in the water. If the IMF goes, so would other multilateral and some bilateral donors. Without foreign assistance, our economy will take a nosedive.

This will have consequences, on currency, inflation, foreign trade. And, most importantly, we would have no money to pay our bills. This scenario has the potential of becoming a perfect storm. It could bring civil unrest on a scale that failing state institutions would be unable to control. We would have reached our lowest point.

If things reach such a pass, anything is possible.


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