TO lose one prime minister might be considered a misfortune, but to lose two in a week seems distinctly like carelessness.
It may be that in the gung-ho, back-slapping atmosphere of Pakistan President Asif Zardari’s drawing room, no one actually reads a CV before sending a chap to go off and take his oath of office as prime minister.
It is possible that memory itself has been banished from discourse around President Asif Zardari, since it can be inconvenient, and churn up all sorts of accusations of corruption. Bad news is always a casualty in the durbari culture of the subcontinent, whether the durbar be in Islamabad or New Delhi.
A week is famously a long time in politics; but this was surely the longest week in Pakistan’s democracy. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani lost his job because he refused to obey a Supreme Court order to investigate a dormant corruption case against Zardari.
On Thursday, Makhdoom Shahabuddin filed his nomination papers for the coveted job. If the bosses of the Anti-Narcotics Force, were surprised they kept their reaction to themselves.
Within hours a non-bailable arrest warrant was obtained from a magistrate’s court in a Rs7bn scam case involving an over-the-limit quota of ephedrine, registered last year.
If Zardari had persisted, it would have been prime minister Shahabuddin who would have been receiving congratulations from Dr Manmohan Singh in a slightly unusual office.
Enter, Raja Pervez Ashraf. Perhaps they all shrugged when they looked at his personal baggage. His nickname is ‘Rental Raja’. He has been accused of receiving kickbacks in a rental power project, and the case is in the Supreme Court.
I have no idea how long the new prime minister will last, but he did become prime minister on Friday. Wit works only if it stretches the truth towards laughter; if it is baseless, it is no more than a silly rant. The joke that poor Zardari was helpless since he could not find any PPP claimant without a corruption case, travels because within the exaggeration there appears to lie a hard core of truth.
Among the co-accused in the Shahabuddin ephedrine case is Ali Musa Gilani, the former prime minister’s son. There is a helpless quality about laughter at corruption. What else can one do when there is evidence that it is so relentless and pervasive?
Tears are a waste. There is already too much to drive a Pakistani to tears: endemic violence in the name of ideology, ethnicity, secession; a hopeless economy stuck in a jobless abyss; the collapse of civic services that leaves citizens literally powerless.
But do not confuse laughter with amity; behind it is a deep anger turning quickly into rage. That rage will become evident on election day. Politicians can hire lawyers to postpone accountability through the judicial system, but they cannot delay the electoral process. Election day is judgment day. Corruption is not a malady limited to politicians. It is fortunate for judges and journalists that they do not have to face elections. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was a hero when he used the power of the law to pursue the corrupt; today, his son is accused of taking favours from a sleazy businessman.
A billionaire knows that contracts come from ministers, not judges. Judges need to be mollified; ministers must be obeyed.
His ultimate loyalty is to a prime minister, not a chief justice.
It is far more profitable to place one hand in the glove of a politician, and caress media with the other. The political class of India and Pakistan are divided by hundreds of factors; but they share common ground in corruption.
No one lives on any high moral ground; everyone is mucking about in the basement. Crusader Anna Hazare claims that 15 cabinet ministers in the present Delhi government are corrupt, and Indians believe him, not their ministers.
An important difference, however, is that the variables of federal democracy cripple the ability of Indian politicians to exercise unchallenged power. The Congress is a subdued party after its demolition in Uttar Pradesh and its disarray in Andhra Pradesh.
More important, the Indian army is not on standby to take over. The true misfortune about losing a prime minister in Pakistan is that as civilian bastions like elected government, judiciary and media destroy one another, the only institution left standing is the army.
Generals Ayub Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf seized power only after civilians created the opportunity through self-inflicted havoc. It would be very careless of Pakistan’s politicians if they allowed history to repeat itself.
The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.