Naked emperor, dead rabbit - Mehreen Zahra-Malik - Friday, May 06, 2011

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Picture this: a magician, creating illusions and pulling a rabbit from a hat. Now mix with this image a second image from the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, which turn out to be invisible, leaving the emperor naked in public. Two illusions in one: of an emperor wearing magnificent but illusory robes and a conjurer producing a rabbit from a hat.

Now picture the PPP government shedding old rags stained by terrorism, inflation, price hikes and power outages and putting on a sparkling new patchwork ensemble of several-point agendas and enemy-turned-allies. Picture President Zardari pulling out of a hat a ‘national reconciliation’ government that will extricate the country from its myriad messes and pave the way for long-term reform.

While the government parades around in its amazing new duds, how many of us know it’s completely naked and the rabbit it’s holding up is dead?

When the MQM withdrew its ministers from the federal cabinet earlier this year, the PPP no longer had the 172 seats needed to preserve its majority in the 342-member National Assembly. Next out was Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, and smelling blood, Nawaz too added pressure by demanding action on a 10-point agenda and subsequently sent PPP’s ministers in the Punjab province home.

Remaining allies and 19 independent MPs summed up to the total strength of 166, still six short of target. With the federal budget and Senate elections looming, this just wasn’t going to work, especially when the government had already failed to pass key financial legislation like the reformed general sales tax and a flood surcharge.

What to do? Get besieged and renegade parties to shoulder the numbers-burden for a quid pro quo and call it ‘national reconciliation’ in the name of saving the country. From villain to semi-hero in two words. One hell of a magic trick, no? Same emperor, new clothes – or rather, no clothes at all.

The PMLN wasn’t going to play ball and bridges with the JUIF had been burned. Pesky MQM wasn’t a complicated target because all it wanted was control over Karachi where the PPP demonstrated it would play by Altaf’s rules (sacking Dr Mirza and banning the People’s Amn Committee are cases in point).

That left the PML-Q: a party barely at the margins of the opposition with a taste for mainstream politics. The king’s party during Musharraf’s reign, it was going to be the biggest loser in the Senate elections when its 20 senators retired. Enter the PPP with promises of seat adjustments in the Senate election, important ministries, alliance in general elections – and it was a match made in heaven. Except the PML-Q wanted more. Remember the NICL corruption investigation in which Moonis Elahi is currently detained as a suspect? Two investigation officers on the case, federally appointed, have already been removed from their posts. Remember the voluminous report submitted to the Supreme Court last month alleging that new “senior minister” Pervaiz Elahi siphoned Rs. 5.4 billion from the Bank of Punjab? Enough said.

The contours of the power-sharing deal were finalised almost three weeks ago but the public back-and-forth was orchestrated to lend a whiff of legitimacy to a done deal and to buy time to placate disgruntled PMLQ members.

While the army was too busy worrying about the US, and now Osama, to care about these political distractions, the alliance did set off alarm bells in Raiwind. For the PPP and the PML-Q, that was half the battle already won.

In all the talk of who would get what ministry, however, there was little talk of who would work on what problem. This was a no-good union from the very get-go. Clever politics and rather impressive opportunism; a war of distraction that won’t make even a modest wrinkle in the fabric of Pakistan’s problems but which works perfectly to divert attention from the truth: that we’re in for a long, slow slog to worse times. A naked emperor and a dead rabbit – Pakistani politics summed up in two images.

If that’s not enough on the art of alliance making, here’s more. What do you do if you don’t have federal ministries to hand out in exchange for favours from other irrelevant politicians? On the good authority of someone very close to Musharraf, we know that owner of ‘champion German Shepherds,’ Humayun Gauhar, was requested by Musharraf to ‘gift’ Imran Khan one of his best dogs. Poor Imran unwittingly sent one of his servants to pick up the pup, which Gauhar and his family considered an affront to dogs everywhere. After all, no dog-respecting person would ever send his servant to pick up a thorough-bred, right? Needless to say, the former president had to intervene and persuade Gauhar that the dog was important for any future alliance between Musharraf and Imran. Dog diplomacy? Now there’s an idea.

Here’s another one: One of the new PML-Q advisors to the PM explained over lunch that what Pakistan needed now were philosopher kings. How about you focus on industries and human rights, sir? Leave Plato’s dialogues to those who don’t have a collapsing state on their hands.

But this is how the political cookie crumbles here, the old hats will tell you: anything requiring undivided attention--terrorism, power shortages, Osama--is always accompanied by equally compelling distractions.

So here’s welcoming me to Islamabad, where politics is a distraction from politics itself.

The writer is assistant editor, The News International. Email:

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