The politics of appeasement - Cyril Almeida - Friday, March 04, 2011

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THE fire the PPP tried to fight by starving it of the oxygen of publicity and public debate has just consumed another one of its own. In three years, the party has lost its iconic leader, a provincial governor and a federal minister.

And still, nothing.

Fretting about Shahbaz Bhatti`s security, arguing over how best to mark his death in the National Assembly (believe it or not, the two minutes of silence in the NA was a compromise — no one dared lead a prayer for a man sentenced to death by extremists), turning on one another out of fear and paranoia that they may be next.

But Rehman Malik isn`t the problem. Babar Awan isn`t the problem. Even Asif Zardari isn`t the problem.

The problem is that the PPP has collectively lost its way. It is fighting yesterday`s battles.

This government`s raison d`être has come down to the narrowest of interpretations of government: completing its term.

Once upon a time, the single-point agenda may have made sense. If it were, say, the `90s, just surviving a full term may have helped stem the rot. Back then, society and state were not in freefall. A government completing its term may have helped bring much-needed political stability, back then the first step towards nudging the country on to a better trajectory.

But this isn`t the `90s. We`re no longer on a desultory trajectory, the goofy country trying to feel its way towards a better future.

The problem for the PPP, or at least those inside the party trying to coax its leaders to take more aggressive stands on some issues, is that there is a powerful argument against anything but the narrowest of governance agendas: the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

The blinding pace of events since her assassination — elections, insurgencies, terrorism in cities, Afghanistan, Mumbai, judicial crises, the list goes on — has obscured the fact that the party is still in a state of paralysis, ruled by a regent, waiting for its boy king, unsure of what the future holds.

For this, part of the blame must fall on BB. Like most leaders in politically unstable countries, hers was a one-person show. BB had minions around her, not a genuine second-tier leadership with political capital and standing of its own.

So when she was brutally struck down, gone with her was the vision for the party, what it stood for, how it could evolve to meet new challenges. There was no, in corporate parlance, `business continuity plan`; there was just a Bhutto continuity plan.

Paralysed, frozen, frightened and paranoid, the group that has coalesced around Asif Zardari has searched for answers to their predicament — but by looking backwards to what they think BB would have done.

If you can set aside the deepest of suspicions about their motives and intentions, the political approach of Asif Zardari & co is likely to have been shaped by four things: the Zia experience; the decade of democracy; exile under Musharraf; and the negotiations with Musharraf that culminated in the infamous NRO.

Out, in, out, in — if you were thinking about how to get in and stay in, the only untested strategy? Complete a term.

Never been done before. Everyone says it`s a good idea. And, perhaps most importantly, in a politics of severe constraints and limitations, one of the few things a politician can genuinely try and achieve.

Complete a term. That`s probably what BB was thinking. And that`s probably where Zardari got the idea from.

But there was a fifth period which also shaped BB`s thinking, a period that was tragically too brief and came too late to filter through to the leaders running the PPP today.

It was the period between Oct 18 and Dec 27 in 2007. Between the two devastating attacks, the bombing in Karachi which was meant to kill her and the attack in Pindi which did.

By all accounts, BB was a changed woman in those 10 weeks. She seemed to have understood that the game had moved on, that it was no longer just about elections and completing terms and politics of survival.

Pakistan had changed in the decade she was away. What were once distant warnings about inevitable consequences of myopic policies had turned into flesh and blood, stalking the country for prey, seeking to grow its numbers.

BB seemed to grasp the new reality of Pakistan in her final weeks. It meant pressing on, reaching out to reassure a frightened public, dispensing with the policies of appeasement.

For sure, everything we know of those final weeks of her life suggests she also felt afraid. But she didn`t let that fear overwhelm her.

In all the wild conspiracies surrounding her death, one fact remains unchallenged. When she appeared out of that sunroof, there was an element of the visceral in her act. The leader of the largest political party in the country was reaching out to her people. There was a bond that tied leader to ordinary man and BB knew it had to be sustained.

Now, today, with Shahbaz Bhatti dead, with Salman Taseer buried, with BB herself gone, perhaps Asif Zardari and his lieutenants need to focus on the last weeks of BB`s life.

Yes, a full term for a government would be unprecedented. Yes, it would help the democratic project. Yes, Pakistan`s democracy needs strengthening.

But that alone is no longer adequate. BB understood that in her last weeks. Retreat, withdrawal, appeasement, they are no longer options. The cancer has spread too far and wide.

BB is no more with us. But Asif Zardari and the PPP can help ensure her final, pivotal, realisations were not laid to rest with her.

The writer is a member of staff.

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