Majority regained – barely - Zafar Hilaly - Saturday, January 08, 2011

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It has been said that more than any other position of eminence that of prime minister is filled by fluke. We went one better in Pakistan: we filled two positions of eminence by fluke--president and prime minister. And three years later, the “flukes” are still there, albeit by the skin of their teeth. However, elections are not won by fluke. If they are free and fair, performance will determine the outcome and how adroitly the politicians campaign. All of which may be put to the test very shortly as the government is on its last legs, having lost, and barely regained, its majority in parliament, though surely not for long.

If it is to be returned to office, the government will have to do vastly better in whatever time that is left; and that is what Mr Zardari told the meeting of PPP’s Central Executive Committee in Naudero recently. While we have no idea who among the legion of ministers will get the chop, we can perhaps speculate who might.

Assuming, of course, that Mr Zardari will not be overcome with a rush of good sense to replace himself, the first deserving casualty that comes to mind is Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Mr Gilani’s performance in office has come within a hair’s breadth of being atrocious. And that’s only partially his fault; he was never cut out for the job, in the first place. However, because a strong and capable deputy with an independent political standing within the party is not what a fuehrer like Mr Zardari wants, Mr Gilani was the preferred candidate.

What ails Mr Gilani? It’s not the mediocrity of his thinking, or the poverty of his language, or because he has as much charisma as a superannuated clerk of the Statistics Division. It is because, rather than let his actions and good decisions speak for themselves, he spends most of his time trying to reconcile what is true with what is false, in the hope of coming up with something plausible and pleasing, and then failing. Initially, he invited sympathy as he shuffled about dowsing fires lit by his boss, until it became evident that he was starting as many on his own. Nevertheless, all that can be overlooked.

But what cannot be overlooked are his deplorable choices to fill key posts, his disdain for the established rules, his lack of common sense and a modicum of ethics, when it comes to promotions and postings, and his complete inability to manage or administer the vast edifice of government, or to take timely decisions and, most importantly, implement government policies. The poor impression that he makes on foreign leaders when interacting with them is another.

In short, Mr Gilani’s problem is capacity and, alas, cranium capacity. Put simply, he is unable to cope. His oh-so-contrived amiability with the opposition, the reconciliation that he preaches ad nauseam, even as other colleagues are plunging the dagger into the opposition. These fool no one and do not compensate for his many other deficiencies, even if we discount rumours regarding his financial probity. It is unimaginable, therefore, that Mr Zardari should want to enter the next electoral race with an albatross around his neck, or even put up with Mr Gilani for much longer as the clock winds down.

Nor will the military be sorry to see Mr Gilani go. Their control of the key ministries and the final say on foreign policy and strategy having being secured, they will support anyone who will deliver. Actually, they would relish being spared the micromanaging they have been forced to undertake due to the incompetence of the regime.

The most fancied successor is the perennial prime-minister-in-waiting, Shah Mahmood Quraishi. In intelligence, savoir faire and in making an impression, he is streaks ahead of Mr Gilani. He is a smooth talker, albeit, too smooth for the liking of many. However, he is unversed in handling the finances of anything but a shrine. Given our dire economic straits, this country needs someone with near-professional economic acumen to manage its affairs. He also has no special flair for administration, but then which politician does?

However, Shah Mahmood Quraishi has the one failing that Mr Zardari may well find impossible to overlook; he is seen as far too ambitious. And an ambitious man has as many masters as there are people who may be useful in bettering his position. Mr Zardari, like most of our political leaders, prefers slaves who have only one master. Let’s, then, just say that Shah Mahmood Quraishi may not be as nice as he looks as a replacement prime minister.

The other and better candidate, in my view, would have been Salmaan Taseer, but he is no more. A victim of that thought process that is hurtling Pakistan into the abyss of intolerance. In any case, neither stood a chance once Mr Zardari made it clear the other day that he and Mr Gilani would sink or swim together. Besides, having lost his majority and then regained it by some last-minute shabby concessions, Mr Zardari will probably not want to have another fight on his hands as he manoeuvres to oust Mr Gilani. Meanwhile, the country will be denied a government that is half competent, just so that Mr Zardari has his way and can boast that he has, as promised, ensured that the government has completed its term.

Mr Zardari would be better off to show some courage. We know that he is not risk-averse. Salmaan Taseer’s death has generated a mite of sympathy for the PPP which he could consider cashing in on. Of course, it is nothing like that which followed Benazir Bhutto’s murder, but frankly he has little else going for him, and time is not on his side. Mr Zardari may lose now, but there is every chance that he will be humiliated later. In any case the writing is on the wall. This government is a lame duck. And there is no light at the end of the tunnel, only more tunnel. Mr Zardari may as well bite the bullet and call for elections. If nothing else, he will be doing the country a favour.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email:

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