Gunning for the PPP - I.A Rehman - January 6, 2011

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WHILE Governor Salman Taseer was paying with his life for standing up against fanaticism in Islamabad, also in the capital Mian Nawaz Sharif was moving towards joining the pack that has been gunning for the party with whose leader he had signed the Charter of Democracy not so long ago.

These two events on Tuesday, Jan 4, 2011 summed up the most critical crisis confronting the state of Pakistan — an ungainly squabble for power among political factions who were quite oblivious of the arrival at their door of extremists determined to destroy all of them and their system. In a way the scene was reminiscent of the situation in Baghdad many centuries ago when learned clerics were debating the possibility of a camel`s passage through the head of a needle while a Mongol horde was about to sack the capital of the great Islamic empire.

The gravity of the state`s crisis can be gauged not only from the refusal of religious parties to condemn the brutal murder of Salman Taseer and the audacity of some of them in condoning the foul deed but also from the PML-N supremo`s decision to tighten the siege around the central coalition.

Only a short time earlier Mian Nawaz Sharif had taken a sound political stand when he had said that he would neither vote in favour of the Gilani government nor join the move to topple it. On Tuesday he still ruled out supporting a move to oust the central coalition, but at the same time he issued an ultimatum to the prime minister that if he did not answer the PML-N`s call within 72 hours (later on the period was extended to six days) the PPP would have to quit the Punjab ministry. The fact that his demands could not be met by anybody did not deter him.What happened during the intervening days to persuade the patriarch of Raiwind to modify his stand? He certainly came under pressure from the hard-liners in his kitchen cabinet who concealed their impatience at being out of power under the plea that the party was losing ground by appearing to be helping the PPP-led coalition to stay in power. Another factor might have been the need to counter the prospect of a PPP–PML-Q axis taking shape. Or, like the well-informed leaders of the MQM and the JUI, the PML-N chief had chosen to take a bet on the widely rumoured possibility of the PPP`s coming to grief by March this year.

Be that as it may, it should not be difficult for Mian Nawaz Sharif to realise that the best course for him to improve his credentials as a democrat and also his party`s electoral prospects is to let the present government complete its term. Any other course will either lead to an early election, which most of the parties do not want, or force the PML-N into the thorny embrace of the MQM and JUI.

In this situation the PPP still has some time to benefit from the opportunities freedom from troublesome allies has provided. It will lose little, and possibly gain something, by giving up the policy of appeasing its erstwhile allies and calling the bluff of the MQM and JUI both.

Much more dangerous than winning back the support of the MQM and JUI at any price will be the PPP coalition`s reliance on the PML-Q for making up a majority in the National Assembly. The PML-Q is a divided house and its nominal controllers do not seem capable of delivering to Mr Gilani all the 50 votes in the National Assembly the party is supposed to have.

Besides, the PPP should not be unaware of the risks in aligning itself with Gen Musharraf`s protégés. In any marriage of convenience between the two neither will the PML-Q be able to help the PPP stay afloat nor will it be possible for the PPP to resuscitate the PML-Q whose ability to survive the next election is questionable. The only possible result might be that the odd couple will sink together.

The only honourable way for the PPP to scramble out of the hole is to make up its mind that it prefers the loss of power now to saving its government at the cost of a total debacle a few months later. Many people, however, doubt the PPP leadership`s capacity to look away from narrow, personal greed and realise the long-term gains in pursuing people-friendly politics.

If a minority government accepts the reality that it cannot have the freedom and advantages parliamentary majorities enjoy, it can through wisdom, prudence and honesty not only survive but also broaden its support among the people. Such opportunities are available to the Gilani coalition too.

The government will no doubt have difficulties in getting its legislative proposals adopted by parliament, especially proposals that adversely affect religious or business groups` interests. But the government could defeat or at least embarrass a more numerous opposition by bringing up, for instance, a tough accountability law, or a broader social security plan, measures that nobody could oppose without paying a political price. However, to be able to improve its standing with the people the government will have to come down heavily on corruption in high places and plug all possibilities of wrongdoing through abuse of discretionary powers, resort to secretive functioning and disregard for merit in the various spheres of life.

It will also have to stop making foolish and politically suicidal declarations such as a recent statement that the government has nothing to do with the increased burden on the people caused by a sharp increase in POL prices. It is like telling a victim of robbery that the government has nothing to do with the acts of a robber who is not subject to its discipline. The plain fact is that regardless of the domestic and international pressures the government must do something to protect the people against hardships caused by a greater rise in the cost of living than any increase in wages.

Further, it is time the government started dispelling the 20-year-old impression that PPP-led governments rely more than others on IMF surrogates and have sometimes been keen to offer international finance organisations more than what is demanded by them. This is not a suggestion for economic adventurism, it is only a plea for a firmer commitment to defend the people`s interests and a more resolute search for the means to do that.

There is no denying the gravity of the challenge the government is facing and many are unlikely to pin hopes on a team that could not consolidate itself while enjoying majority support. Still, there is no point in giving up the ghost before any shots are fired.

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