An illusion shattered By Asha’ar Rehman - Tuesday, March 01, 2011

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THE ouster of the PPP from the Punjab government has generated three main public responses. One, the exit has provided cause for lament to the decent beings whose battered hearts miss a beat every time they are subjected to a violent roar by a Babar Awan or a Rana Sanaullah.

But these souls are few in number and meek in expression and their submissions are submerged by the second more vociferous call that cries out for deliverance from the ‘corrupt’ rulers.

The third reaction encapsulates the traditional bashing of the politician per se. Politicians are being caricatured in public and the mere mention of them as good-for-nothing corrupt dodos generates not just giggles but contemptuous laughter. The target is preferably a politician belonging to the PPP, but failing that any would do.

Nawaz Sharif was until recently quite wary of this summary public dismissal of politicians in general but he is now more discerning in his selection and more specific in his designs. He is narrowing down on one man as he picks up from exactly where Chaudhry Pervez Elahi had left off in the run-up to the 2008 general election. Nawaz Sharif’s job is to paint President Asif Ali Zardari as the god of ‘unbridled’ corruption.

If the PML-N is pushing for anything, it has to be pushing for a snap election. As it presses on it will be relying on the old, pre-Charter of Democracy (CoD) formula to force the government to give in to its demands. Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif has been pushing and pressing for a showdown with the PPP for far longer. It has been a while since he swore he would never again trust President Zardari and he had denied the so-called partners in the Punjab cabinet any share whatsoever in power. His grumbling had been good-naturedly ignored by Mr Nawaz Sharif until last week’s decision to finally formally confront the PPP.

It is no secret that the PML-N had enacted the 10-point farce to justify the severing of ties with the PPP. The real reasons behind the timing of the separation lay at a distance from the principled world where charters of democracy are signed and 10 points invented. It would be worthwhile to pinpoint some of the factors that surround last week’s dumping decision in an attempt to understand the current politics.

The PPP’s ties with the US are strained in the wake of the Raymond Davis case. A very important PPP member, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has been so moved by the circumstances that he has refused a ministry and instead opted for a tour of interior Sindh — where he has his murids and the PPP has its voters.

He is calling for a new, clean leadership and it would be fallacious for President Zardari to think that it is only Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani that Mr Qureshi is after. With a bit of help from our own clean-up men, the angry former foreign minister has sufficient potential to dent the PPP.

Shah Mehmood is a Mr Clean who fits in well with the synchronised anti-corruption squad out there. He has found a place in a virtual coalition that comprises the Sharifs and an assortment of political parties and figures ranging from the more committed Jamaat-i-Islami and Imran Khan to fence-sitters such as the MQM. The PPP’s opponents always indicated that it would be impossible for the party to throw away the long-pasted corruption label, even if the popular mandate briefly took the sting out of their criticism.

In recent months, however, scandals have facilitated the return of popular purpose to the old anti-PPP anti-corruption refrain. For consumption by the public at large, from amongst the factors that surround the PML-N–PPP breakup in Punjab, there is no more attractive offering today than the stories of corruption and inefficiency of the PPP government. People tend to believe these stories even more in periods of extreme depression, and the signs are that the crowds behind the Sharifs will grow as the PML-N adds greater momentum to its thrust for power at the centre.

The Sharifs have the all-too visible (parts of) Punjab firmly under their command. They have successfully managed to keep attention off their own failures in the three years they have been in power in Punjab since the last general election, many of these failures resulting from one-man rule in Punjab.

Significantly, powerful sections of the media have stood solidly behind the PML-N leaders in their cause and the trend continues as a PML-Q forward bloc is set to formally replace the PPP in the Shahbaz Sharif government. The media can spare little time for the ethical clauses pertaining to turncoats in the CoD and for exploiting Mr Nawaz Sharif, who is morally at his weakest while defending the PML-N’s association with the PML-Q ‘reunification’ bloc.

While the PPP has complained of prejudice, media preferences do reveal a contemporary truth no government claiming efficiency can afford to not recognise: the necessity to keep the emphasis on consumers. This is as important a factor contributing to the party’s current situation as any.

The PPP may not have lived up to the people’s expectations but by ignoring the consumers’ interests it has been guilty of committing a much more serious offence. The best it has done is that it has addressed small groups such as the one found entitled to Benazir income as opposed to the tactics applied by Shahbaz Sharif who was able to get away with a costly roti scheme only because it was directed at the consumers.

As the PPP leader, President Zardari has paid a huge price due to his inaction vis-à-vis the consumers at large, and because of his so-called policy of reconciliation that has — at least in Punjab — repeatedly seen him squandering the initiative. The policy, alternatively called the effort to avoid a counter-campaign that could threaten the government at the centre, took effect when the PPP decided to form a coalition in Punjab with the PML-N instead of the very available PML-Q after the 2008 election. Consequently, the party was sidelined and it has now been cornered and robbed of an illusion of power that it had nursed in the province as a coalition partner.

The president has been constrained, probably more by security than by a bias for reconciliation, to depend on the likes of the late Salman Taseer and Babar Awan to watch over the PPP’s interests in Punjab. After its showing in the 2008 election, perhaps a greedy and hungry Asif Zardari would have best suited the PPP here.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

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