“ENLIGHTENED moderation”, President Musharraf’s increasingly insistent battle cry, has only one meaning in Pakistan today. If, suspending disbelief, you consider him God’s answer to Pakistan’s problems and think him entitled to another presidential term in 2007, you are “moderate” and “enlightened”.

If, however, you even remotely question his right to run Pakistan’s political circus according to his convenience, you deserve an extended stay in Guantanamo Bay.

For make no mistake, Pakistan’s presidential election has started, with everything under the sun subordinated to Gen Musharraf’s presidential ambitions. “Vote for enlightened persons in the next elections,” advised the general in Multan the other day. By which he meant vote for people who’ll vote for me in crucial 2007 when his present term expires.

Remember, General Musharraf is president by no procedure known to the Constitution. He pronounced himself ‘elected’ for a five-year term courtesy a referendum viewed by friend and foe alike as an exercise in hilarity, a mix of extra-constitutionalism and high comedy. Since that route is unlikely to be repeated, the only way out, short of another coup, is to get elected as per the Constitution, which means by both houses of parliament and the four provincial assemblies.

Only problem is, how do you ensure the election of a Musharraf-friendly legislatures in 2007? If that trick can be turned, there is no problem. The majority of the legislators raise their strong right arms for Musharraf and, lo and behold, he is constitutional president. But if the outcome of the general elections is in doubt, and you don’t have much confidence in the vote-getting ability of your fair-weather allies, you have a huge problem, requiring major therapy on the part of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI).

ISI and MI have shaped the political landscape since 1999: creating a new Muslim League, supervising, monitoring and almost dictating the outcome of the 2000 local elections, queering the pitch for the 2002 general elections, organizing the defection of the Patriots from the PPP, and getting the 17th Amendment, which gives constitutional cover to Gen Musharraf’s actions, passed with the help of the MMA’s mullahs.

Can ISI and MI pull it off again? And if both agencies have to repeat in 2007 what they did in 2002, mightn’t some people wonder why the supreme commander, so sold on his popularity, can’t fight his elections by himself? Any authoritarian system, even a loose one like ours, thrives on certainty not scepticism. Once questions are asked, the ground slips from under a soldier-president’s feet.

Why are Musharraf emissaries talking “enlightened moderation” to Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari? Why for that matter to Shahbaz Sharif?

If the lack-lustre coalition of Musharraf supporters — Q League, Gujrat Chaudries, Leghari, Patriots, MQM — could be expected to sweep those elections, there would be no reason to hunt for alternatives. The president and his advisers could afford to be cool, comforted and amused by the opposition’s confusion.

But if earnest efforts are on to build bridges to these two parties not long ago denounced in the strongest possible terms, it is because of the mounting fear that Q League and allies, the dummies that they are, don’t in the least look like winners.

The plight of the Musharraf coalition looks all the more desperate considering that the mullahs after being used, abused and now discarded, seem to have lost all relish for being used again.

Or that at least is what appearances would suggest. Sinners are predictable. Holy men with their never-ending complexities are harder to figure out. Qazi Hussain Ahmed would want the nation to believe he is taking a hard line, although much of his hard line is confined to newspaper space. Maulana Fazlur Rehman is the consummate politician, seemingly uncompromising but in reality quite ‘pragmatic’. So who knows on which side the camel ultimately sits?

The mullahs’ problem is they are torn between the desire to teach Musharraf a lesson and safeguard their little fiefdoms in the Frontier and Balochistan. Wanting to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds is the dichotomy which accounts for the misery writ large on their faces. For this predicament, however, they have no one to blame but themselves.

With the mullahs out of the ambit of “enlightened moderation”, Musharraf and advisers come under greater pressure to look for alternatives and reach out to the PPP and the PML-N, in the hope of doing to these parties what they did to the mullahs in 2002: taking the whole bunch of them for a ride.

So it boils down to this: are the PPP and the PML-N willing to blacken their faces? The PPP already has got some relief in the form of Zardari’s release, his going to Dubai and his expected return sometime in April. Aficionados will also have noticed that when Asif Zardari recently re-staked his claim to his Rockwood estate not a squeak was heard from the official media or news sources wired to ISI and MI.

The PPP therefore has reason to be grateful. But if it has to come to the generalissimo’s rescue in 2007, will it be satisfied with these crumbs or will it hold out for more? If the general wants to have his cake and eat it too, wanting Benazir’s support but insisting she herself remain out of the 2007 elections, why should Benazir play ball?

The same holds true for the PML-N. Although the Maulana Fazlur Rehman faction of the party — believers in ‘pragmatism’ — led by Shahbaz Sharif, and including such visionaries as Nisar Ali, seem to be in favour of playing poker with the regime, Nawaz Sharif seems dead opposed to the idea. This is not surprising given Musharraf’s insistence that Nawaz cool his heels in the Holy Land until 2010. If this is all he gets, what incentive for him to let his party dance to Musharraf’s tune?

Musharraf’s problem is that like all military saviours he believes in taking not giving. While wanting everyone to clamber aboard his wagon of “enlightened moderation” and hail him as Pakistan’s deliverer — and, along the way, support him in his presidential bid — he is disinclined to concede anything worthwhile in return, like sticking to the Constitution and tolerating a true parliamentary democracy.

In his dispensation, the prime minister is a figurehead. It was all right for Jamali for whom the prime ministership, figurehead or not, was a big elevation. It is certainly all right for Shaukat Aziz who in Oct ‘99 was interviewed for the job of finance minister in General Headquarters. From Citibank New York to the prime ministership of Pakistan is a great leap forward, whichever way you look at it.

But can the PPP and the PML-N be satisfied with the shadow and not the substance of power, especially when the worst of their tribulations is over and the weather looks brighter for them than at any time since 1999? In contrast, it is all downhill for Gen Musharraf whose power has peaked and who from now on needs PPP and PML-N cooperation more than these two parties need his graciousness and support.

Common sense and logic therefore dictate that these two parties should stick to their guns and opt for nothing less than Musharraf’s quitting the post of army chief, which is the real brake on Pakistani democracy. But logic often has little to do with the real or perceived political compulsions of Pakistan’s political class which, moreover, has honed the talent of selling itself cheaply.

So what is it going to be? Bargaining for cheap benefits or, for once, sticking to some semblance of principle? Interesting times lie ahead.



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