Minister on sick leave - Rahimullah Yusufzai - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sustaining and running a coalition government could be a messy affair and this is what is happening in Pakistan. A way had to be found to relieve the Pakistan People’s Party Sindh senior vice president Dr Zulfiqar Mirza of his job as home minister to satisfy the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which has always been a very demanding partner, and this was done by sending him on medical leave.

It isn’t clear how long Dr Zulfiqar Mirza’s sick leave would last because if he is really not feeling well, as the Sindh chief minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah claimed, then it may take some time for him to get healthy again. It is possible that the doctor from Badin fell ill while trying to find a cure for the many diseases plaguing Karachi, which probably has been suffering more killings and extortions than any other mega city in the world. And that he failed to deliver is obvious because the target-killings and the ‘bhatakhori’ as the extortions are referred to in Karachi have continued. His critics even accused him of inadvertently contributing to some of the crimes by allegedly patronising the Lyari Peace Committee in Karachi. However, it must be said to his credit that he tried his best to do his job and wasn’t shy of taking on the criminals and their patrons.

Dr Zulfiqar Mirza is unlikely to return as the home minister once his unspecified medical leave is over. He wasn’t removed to be brought back after a while though he is still a provincial minister with the portfolios of prisons and forests. There has been speculation that he could be given some role in the federal government. That would take time and involve going through an electoral process.

Call it Dr Zulfiqar Mirza’s ‘sacrifice’ or refer to it as something inevitable keeping in view the political situation in Sindh, his forced departure helped keep the coalition between the PPP and the MQM intact. In fact, there were indications for some time that he was on the way out. His tough statements targeting the MQM and holding it primarily responsible for the lawlessness in Karachi, couldn’t have gone unchallenged. Though he represented a viewpoint that is largely shared by the PPP rank and file in Sindh and also elsewhere in the country, such views are supposed to be expressed in private and not publicly. Matters were made worse by his fiery style of public speaking that could easily provoke those being attacked.

His high stature in the PPP as a senior party office-bearer and the husband of National Assembly Speaker Fahmida Mirza and his closeness to President Asif Ali Zardari were reasons that delayed his ouster as Sindh home minister.

As has been the case for the last three years after the 2008 general election, the president has gone out of the way to accommodate his political allies, particularly the MQM and the ANP as part of his reconciliatory politics based on power-sharing. The ruling PPP, looking weak and disjointed, cannot afford to lose any of its two major allies, MQM and ANP, after having lost Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F as it would signal the unravelling of the painstakingly managed politics of often unnatural alliances and trigger events that could eventually cause the collapse of the coalition governments in the centre and provinces. Sending home the provincial home minister was, therefore, not a high price to pay for the higher goal of staying in power at all costs.

However, this could turn out to be a transient measure to overcome the present challenges facing the PPP-led coalition government instead of finding a durable solution of the serious problems afflicting not only Karachi but also the PPP-MQM alliance.

If the past is any guide, the issue of exercising authority as part of the coalition government would continue to be a bone of contention between the PPP and the MQM. The two parties have joined hands not due to any ideological reasons or fascination for each other but on account of the simple fact that they need one another to remain in power. Aware of the compulsions, they at times try to be understanding of each other. For the most part though, both parties tend to exploit the situation at the expense of the supposed ally. Their public brawls and politics of demanding favours by fixing deadlines are now a familiar and amusing sight. It is now taken for granted that the two parties would reconcile just as dramatically as the eruption of any crisis in their uncertain relationship.

If the departure of Dr Zulfiqar Mirza is MQM’s gain, the ANP leaders in Sindh see it as their loss. They were happy that Dr Zulfiqar Mirza was pointing accusing fingers mostly at the MQM for its role in the target-killings and were hoping that the killers in government custody would be prosecuted and their sponsors exposed. The major ANP worry now is that Dr Zulfiqar Mirza’s removal would demoralise the police officials and make them reluctant to do their job to go after criminals linked to political parties. Already, a number of policemen who in the past took action against such elements have been eliminated. There are many instances of police officials being targeted and killed for having investigated and nabbed killers having influential connections.

It is going to be a tough balancing act for the PPP to keep both the MQM and the ANP happy. The priority, however, is to keep the MQM amused because it is a bigger political party in Sindh and has more street power than any other party in Karachi. The ANP has been making noises lately about reviewing its decision whether to continue being part of the coalition government in Sindh. It has alleged that the promised funds for development work in the Pashtun localities, almost all of which are slums, in Karachi have not been provided during the last three years and the problems facing Pashtuns remained unresolved. The ANP has two provincial assembly seats in Sindh and is thus in no position to put enough pressure on the PPP and the provincial government to accept its demands. However, the ANP has considerable political clout as an ally and coalition partner of the PPP in the federal government and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. In fact, the ANP has been the most loyal ally of the PPP and, therefore, cannot be ignored.

The PPP until now has managed to keep both the MQM and the ANP on its side despite the growing rivalry between these two largely ethnic-based parties. It may succeed in retaining their support for the remaining two years of the government’s five-year term because all the parties have a vested interest in remaining in power. However, the important question is whether their success in keeping their opportunistic alliance and coalition governments intact could lead to an improvement in the lawless situation now prevailing in Karachi. There isn’t much hope that such a turnaround in the situation is possible.

In such a scenario, it is the people of Karachi who would continue to suffer the daily round of killings and the general lawlessness that brings life to a standstill and interrupts their ability to earn livelihood. For now, the elderly Qaim Ali Shah would be looking after the home ministry portfolio in place of Dr Zulfiqar Mirza. The Sindh chief minister is already burdened with quite a few portfolios and in any case the home ministry needs to be assigned as a full-time job to someone capable and powerful to deal with the huge challenge of tackling acts of terrorism and crime in Karachi and also the rest of the province.

Proposals have been made about making the country weapons-free, using the army to cleanse Karachi of the various mafias as the scope of the challenge was beyond the power of the police and rangers and prompting the political parties to stop patronising criminals and target-killers. These are measures which are needed but impractical given the state of affairs in Pakistan, at least for the time being. One wishes the situation changes for the better and Pakistan is able to overcome the problems tearing at the fabric of our society.


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