Crisis of credibility - S Iftikhar Murshed - Monday, February 28, 2011

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Friday's announcement by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that the PML-N had decided to sever its links with the PPP in Punjab is yet another phase in the murky world of Pakistani politics. In the press conference the PML-N chief wore the mask of injured innocence and recapitulated the atrocious performance of the PPP-led federal government, though his own party has hardly fared any better in Punjab. The composition of the Punjab government will change with the bonding between the PML-N and the 47 members of the Unification Group from the PML-Q, but the formidable problems confronting the country will remain.

The swearing in of Yusuf Raza Gilani on March 25, 2008, as the 17th prime minister of Pakistan was the curtain-raiser to a tragicomedy enacted by a cast of artless political leaders. In the nearly three years since then, his government has reneged on its commitments or revised its policies on critical issues on no less than 15 occasions. It is almost as though the leadership of the country believes, as Oscar Wilde did, that "consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative."

In the process, the government has created a crisis of credibility for itself. What it does not realise is that credibility is like delicate porcelain which, if broken, is almost impossible to restore. No one takes the leadership of the country seriously anymore and this became apparent within months of the February 2008 elections. Thoughtless pronouncements are made at the highest level only to be proved false later.

For instance, on Nov 22, 2008, President Asif Ali Zardari took the world by storm when, during a videoconference organised by The Hindustan Times, he told his audience that Pakistan would "certainly not" be the first to use nuclear weapons. In one sweep Pakistan's security, underpinned by its nuclear doctrine, was rent asunder. The reaction of Indian strategic analysts, such as C Uday Bhaskar, was: "We have to wait till tomorrow to see how the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi responds to Mr Zardari's political initiative." Four days later the Mumbai attacks took place.

For the past one month, the attention of the Pakistani leadership and the media has been riveted on the Raymond Davis incident. It is almost as though there was nothing else of any consequence. Here again there have been contradictory statements galore, thereby again bringing the credibility of the federal government into question. The former PPP information secretary, Fauzia Wahab, told the media in Karachi that Davis had immunity under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Yet four hours later, presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar declared that what Ms Wahab had said were her personal views and did not reflect the party's position. Qamar Zaman Kaira, who barely a week earlier had been ingloriously ousted from the federal cabinet, replaced Ms Wahab as the ruling party's information czar.

Former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Quraishi--who acquired the reputation of a diplomatic Bertie Wooster when he stated after the Zardari-Sarkozy talks at the Elysee Palace on May 15, 2009, that France had agreed to provide civilian nuclear technology to Pakistan--has also added to the confusion on the Davis affair. Peeved at reportedly being transferred to the water and power ministry in the recent cabinet downsizing, Quraishi decided to quit the government, but not the PPP, and is now posing as the fifth martyr of the Davis episode. In one histrionic outburst after another he has claimed that he was removed from the foreign ministry for not knuckling under US pressure to concede diplomatic immunity to Davis.

Far more serious than the storm generated by Davis was Interior Minister Rehman Malik's claim in the National Assembly on Jan 28 that he possessed evidence of a blueprint for the break-up of Pakistan. The first stage in this scheme was to stoke the unrest in Balochistan and raise it to the level of a province-wide insurgency. Without identifying the masterminds, the interior minister said the plot had been foiled because of timely intervention by the military. On Jan 25 he told media representatives that the government had captured terrorists in Karachi who had planned to assassinate leaders of the MQM, the PPP and the ANP, as well as journalists. Their objective was "to turn Karachi into Lebanon."

Both claims made by Rehman Malik have been received with skepticism because of the government's credibility problem. However, they cannot be brushed aside because Pakistan has had more than its share of high drama in the 63 years since its emergence. There have been wars, insurgencies, recurrent terrorist incidents, military coups and political assassinations. As if this were not enough, in 1971 Pakistan became the only country in history where the majority population seceded from the minority.

Those who do not learn from history are liable to commit the mistakes of the past. Since the birth of Pakistan in 1947, its people have been told that their country was in danger. This was probably true, and the threat persists, with the difference that it now mostly emanates from within the country. There has undeniably been external interference in Pakistan and this will remain so long as the government does not take drastic measures to address the near-collapse of the economy, which, in turn, spawns extremist violence and terrorism.

The continuing economic haemorrhage of the country can no longer be sustained. Pakistan is rapidly heading towards insolvency with the widening of the revenue-expenditure gap. There are only 2.5 million taxpayers out of an estimated adult population of 86 million. The major state-owned enterprises have totted up colossal losses that reached 245 billion rupees in 2009-10. According to UNICEF, malnourishment in Sindh is at more than 21 per cent of the population, and this not only surpasses the level prevailing in sub-Saharan Africa but is also way beyond the 15 per cent emergency threshold established by the World Health Organisation. The ingredients for political chaos, and even anarchy, are in place.

It is futile to expect the current political leadership, whether in government or in the opposition, to salvage the situation, because they are the cause of the problem. In his press conference Nawaz Sharif hinted at possible midterm elections. This is not the answer, because elections, whenever they are held, will only yield the same poisonous harvest of a corrupt leadership. There has to be immediate and radical change because the continuation of the economic meltdown and the political turmoil will be disastrous for the country.

Some analysts have suggested that a possible way out is the replacement of the federal and provincial governments by interim dispensations of technocrats mandated to carry out reforms, through a decision by the Supreme Court under the Roman law maxim of salus populi lex or "let the welfare of the people be the supreme law." They have no hesitation in admitting that this was precisely the justification advanced by the Dogar Supreme Court in validating Pervez Musharraf's proclamation of emergency, which was described as an "extra-constitutional step," rather than an "unconstitutional measure."

The writer is the publisher of the Criterion quarterly. Email:

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