Never a deadline - Hussain H Zaidi - Monday, March 07, 2011

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The bone of contention between former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the incumbent rulers is not power or privileges, policies, or priorities. Both are known for their unflinching commitment to democracy and uncompromising contempt for despotism. Both were wronged by dictators, have rendered enormous sacrifices for the cause of democracy and have high stakes in continuation of the democratic process. Both believe in the rule of law and look down upon abuse of power. For both, the be-all-and-end-all of politics is nothing but selfless public service.

But if the two have so much in common, what has driven them apart? A glance at political developments during the last three years reveals that they only disagree over whether there’s such thing as a deadline in politics.

Mr Sharif and his party subscribe to the view that in politics there’s no time like the present. Just as justice delayed is justice denied, delayed action in politics is tantamount to inaction. Therefore, major political decisions have to be made in good time. In particular, deals struck between top political leaders need to be honoured within the agreed time. A politician ought to be as good as his word. So if he committed himself to doing something, say, in one month, he must stick to the deadline.

On the other hand, President Zardari and his loyal lieutenant, Premier Gilani, have no time for those who are bent upon giving deadlines. Though they agree that promises need to be kept and deals honoured, they hold that things should be done in their own good time. One doesn’t become guilty of turning back on one’s word merely because one is playing for time.

Down the memory lane. The elections held on Feb 18, 2008 had produced a hung parliament. Mr Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) emerged as the single-largest party in the National Assembly, followed by the PML-N of Mr Sharif. However, the PPP fell well short of a simple majority. A similar situation existed in three of the four provinces, including the Punjab, where the PML-N returned as the single-largest party. In the centre and Punjab, the PPP and the PML-N formed coalitions. In the centre, the PPP was the senior coalition partner, while in Punjab it was the PML-N.

From the outset, it was abundantly clear that if the coalitions were to remain intact, the two parties would have to bring forth a great deal of political maturity and spirit of accommodation. The two parties were on better terms than ever before and wanted a strong parliamentary system and removal of the distortions introduced to the Constitution. Hence, cooperation was in their mutual interest.

On March 3, 2008, the top leadership of the two parties met at Bhurban and announced a decision to restore the deposed members of the superior judiciary through a parliamentary resolution within one month of the installation of the federal government. However, later differences between the parties on the matter came to the fore. The PPP took the position that restoration of the judges needed nothing less than an amendment to the Constitution, whereas for the PML-N an executive order backed by a parliamentary resolution, as envisaged in the Bhurban Declaration, was sufficient to restore the deposed members of the superior judiciary. The PPP also came out with a constitutional package, which sought to amend some sixty provisions of the Constitution.

Subsequent attempts to overcome the differences on the so-called modalities for reinstatement of the judges did not bear fruit, and in the end the PML-N decided to quit the coalition and sit on opposition benches.

Notwithstanding their differences on the restoration of the judges, the PPP and the PML-N made common cause in forcing President Pervez Musharraf to step down. On Aug 7, in a joint press conference, Messrs Zardari and Sharif announced that the president would be tried on charges of gross misconduct and of violating the Constitution.

In retrospect, the PPP has fulfilled most of the promises it held out to the PML-N. Mr Sharif wanted reinstatement of the judges, Mr Zardari restored them. Mr Sharif wanted removal of Gen Musharraf, Mr Zardari did so – albeit only to become president himself, much to the chagrin of his now estranged “elder brother.” Mr Sharif wanted revival of the 1973 Constitution, Mr Zardari obliged even at the cost of clipping his presidential powers. What has given Mr Sharif the pip, however, is that neither promise was fulfilled within the agreed deadline.

Coming to Mr Sharif’s latest suggestions for good governance and economic revival embodied in his 10-point agenda – the proximate cause of the PPP/PML-N parting of ways – the ruling party is of the view that they need some time before the same can be put into effect. The former premier, however, suspected that the ruling party was merely delaying action to gain time.

Some federal ministers are still hopeful of a patch-up with their former ally. The fact, however, is that if the PPP wants to woo the PML-N back, it must learn to keep time with that party.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. Email:

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