Routed by choiceI. - A Rehman - January 13, 2011

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POLITICS in Pakistan is more unpredictable than a game of cricket, even that of the local variety. The affair of Mian Nawaz Sharif`s ultimatum to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the latter`s celebration of his capitulation is fit to be included in the legends.

Barely a week ago, Mian Nawaz Sharif gave Mr Gilani two ultimatums. First, the prime minister was asked to say `yes` or `no` to the PML-N chief`s 10-point plan, drawn up by him in his discretion. In case the answer was not in the affirmative, the PPP was to be thrown out of the Punjab government. Secondly, if the prime minister said `yes`, he was to fulfil the PML-N demands, artfully described as a “reform package”, within 45 days. Failing this he was to suffer, in the words of an over-excited reporter, “political liquidation”. Jo chahay aap ka husn-i-karishma saz karey.

The moment the prime minister threw his hands up in surrender, the PML-N chief was reported to have said that no ultimatum had ever been issued by him because the word `ultimatum` was never used by him. Indeed, he is quoted as saying that this word does not figure in his dictionary. Further, now that Mr Gilani has said `yes`, the PPP can stay in the Punjab government.

However, the PML-N leader`s part in the skit has been overshadowed by the prime minister`s haste in handing the challenger a complete walk-over.

One does not know to what extent the two leaders were free agents in the final phase of this affair but assuming that they were reasonably free, they could have reduced the cost to their political reputations.

There is much to be said in favour of a government`s attempts to build democracy through dialogue with all opponents. The government`s willingness to establish a process of consultation with a three-member PML-N panel can also be welcomed because it could be presented as a move towards governance under a bipartisan understanding. But politics is not that simple an affair. It may not be long before the prime minister realises that he has struck a one-sided bargain against himself and his party. Now, the PML-N will get the credit for any progress on realising the 10 objectives listed by its chief while it will not be liable for any failures — for these, the government alone will be blamed.

The only explanation for the prime minister`s press conference last Sunday is that Mian Nawaz Sharif threw a bouncer at him and instead of having the stamina to stay at the wicket, he panicked and declared himself out. In the event, the prime minister reinforced the impression that his government is weaker than it appears to be and that his party is mortally afraid of losing ministries, not only at the centre but in Punjab also.

It is difficult to imagine why the premier chose to expose his loss of nerve instead of exercising the options that were available to him. To begin with, he might have tested the PML-N`s capacity to carry out its threat and its possible consequences. Then, he could have held a proper consultation with his parliamentary party and the coalition allies. Neither the telephone calls he made before the press briefing nor his conversation (if any) with President Asif Zardari could be held as a substitute for consensus-based decision-making in a parliamentary form of government, which is different from both the presidential and prime ministerial systems.

A little reflection should have brought home to Mr Gilani the advantage of informing Mian Nawaz Sharif that the latter`s 10 points were part of the PPP`s, and indeed all democratic groups`, broader agenda, which included another 10 or more people-friendly reform items. Why should the government create the impression that popular ideas cannot originate from its councils?

The ruling party`s acrobatics for saving its government at any price and the way it is soliciting support from anyone who challenges it call for a discussion on political parties` fear of fighting an election while outside the chambers of power. The regularity and diligence with which elections have been manipulated have convinced the political elite that a party can win elections only when it is in power. It was this conviction that led to the demand that a general election must always be organised by neutral caretakers, although neutral caretakers have never been found. This is something all political parties, especially those who signed the Charter of Democracy, should address. They should sign a compact that they will jointly struggle to make any election manipulation impossible and that a party that is out of power today can hope to capture power at the next elections.

The response to the PML-N`s ultimatum apart, the prime minister`s other observations on Sunday should have caused concern. His statement on the blasphemy law might have been understandable in the prevalent situation but could easily have been accompanied with a firm policy announcement that the government will not tolerate lawlessness and that those guilty of violence or instigation to violence will be dealt with severely.

Further, the prime minister`s reference to expediting the privatisation of some property to meet the financial crunch suggests that the government is still following a bad feudal`s ways of generating resources: by selling land or family heirlooms, or borrowing from the moneylender. There is no reference to any plan to cut down the state`s non-productive expenditure, or to any move to control the profligate among the political and bureaucratic bigwigs. Money that is raised or borrowed will again be thrown into a bottomless pit and the crisis will worsen.

It is perhaps time the government tried to be a little unselfish and looked at the worst victims of the economic crisis — the millions of self-employed machine-users, petty vendors and other workers whose life has been destroyed by the disruption of their work due to fuel shortages. Let the wastage of scarce resources on the import of cars and luxury items be stopped and oil and gas imported so that the underprivileged can make a modest living and also contribute to the revival of the national economy.

Nobody will blame the government for making up with its political opponents so long as it does not ignore the interests of the ordinary citizens — the real masters of the fate of the government and the opposition both.

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