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Addressing the real shortage

April 28, 2006

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WISELY recognising the public’s alarm over the smallness of the federal cabinet and the severe shortage of ministers, the military-civil combo has gone ahead and appointed half a dozen more ministers, pushing the size of the federal cabinet further into the realm of higher mathematics. What’s the total number of ministers now hogging it at the public expense? Your guess is as good as mine.

Tears, however, will be shed for Sheikh ‘Sheikha’ Rashid’s departure from information to railways, Abdul Qadir Hasan, the popular Urdu columnist, summing it up best with the comment, “Sheikh Rashid boltay, boltay railway mein chaley gaye”...(Sheikh Rashid, while talking and talking, has gone into the railways). Who will fill up the huge gap of loquacity that he leaves behind?

A further Qadir comment is also to be cherished: “Sheikh Rashid who, while staying in information, was also given to speaking on foreign affairs, will very likely keep getting off the rails every now and then.” Whether good governance has come our way or not, comic relief has certainly been provided to the masses.

About one ministerial elevation, however, there will be no surprises. Islamabad insiders were certain that whether anyone else was being promoted or not, Sumaira Malik was becoming full minister. This prediction was made on the basis of her all-round and much-spoken-of accomplishments as a state minister.

Sheikha’s replacement is Muhammad Ali Durrani, a soft-spoken guy whose outward softness belies his sharp political skills. He began political life in the Jamaat-i-Islami and became head of its auxiliary wing, the Pasban, whose principal function, as far as I have been able to make out, seems to be to make a nuisance of itself over issues happening to be of concern to the Jamaat from time to time.

But Durrani didn’t remain tethered to the Pasban for long. Soon he joined hands with former president, Sardar Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari, one of the bigger disasters to hit Pakistani politics (some of Pakistan’s present troubles traceable to Leghari’s fateful decision to sack Benazir Bhutto’s second government in Nov, 1996.) Leghari formed the Millat Party and after Javed Jabbar, who was the party’s first secretary-general, joined Musharraf’s cabinet as information minister, Durrani stepped into Jabbar’s shoes and became secretary-general.

(What happened to Jabbar, the curious might wonder. I am not privy to the details but he made some slip as information minister and found himself fed to the wolves. Tough world, the world of military-dominated Pakistani politics.)

Later, under military prodding, the Millat Party subsumed its identity in the morass of the military’s political front, the Q League. What happened to the rest of the Millat Party is not known (so deep was the morass into which it had fallen) but Durrani became a senator, then just a few months ago special assistant to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. From there to the information ministry was but a small step, a just acknowledgement of his political skills.

I should add that the new junior minister for information, Tariq Azim, is an equally good communicator, not losing his cool under pressure or provocation. It’s a tough job selling this government but Durrani and Azim both do it well. They appear frequently on television and do a superb job of defending the indefensible.

Talking of remaining cool under pressure, I have long wanted to express my admiration for Shaukat Aziz’s composure. Whatever the situation he never gets fazed. He’s never at a loss for words. He may sound like an automaton and there may be no fire in his belly — two charges regularly hurled at him — but whatever the occasion he has the right words to suit it. This is no mean gift.

Shaukat’s composure was severely tested during President Bush’s short visit to Islamabad. The way he was treated and kept in the dark it almost seemed as if he was being deliberately humiliated. A lesser man or someone with a less tough skin would have walked out and caught the next flight to New York (where he is said to have a swank apartment). But Shaukat kept a tight lid on his feelings, his face as smooth and expressionless as ever. Just goes to show that you don’t rise high in the corporate world, as Shaukat did, just like that.

When he was appointed prime minister — in the face of considerable opposition from powerful elements within the presidential circle, let it be noted — I remember writing that he should not be underestimated. His unruffled demeanour under fire only reinforces that opinion. Humayun Akhtar and Jehangir Tareen can keep their prime ministerial ambitions on hold for the time being. Shaukat remains a man to watch. Barring the unforeseen (and no one but soothsayers know how the next year and a half is going to unfold) he is not going anywhere in a hurry.

We have to keep in mind the cardinal fact that for all his outward invincibility the real person on a slippery slope is Gen Musharraf. He has reached the top of his power. From now on he can only go downhill. He stays where he is — and as time passes, and the pressures mount, clinging to the top will require all the gymnastic skill he can muster — or he starts to slip. And if he slips, there is going to be no halfway house, no branch to hold on to. Pakistan may look outwardly calm. But beneath the surface dangerous fires are burning, Waziristan and Balochistan are but two indications of this. If you slip, you very likely fall, into the crocodile pit gleaming below.

That is why elements advising our general to embrace political martyrdom by taking off his uniform, and holding open elections in which his principal rivals, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, freely participate, may be saying the right thing, but they don’t take into account the fears besetting the presidency where the dominant feeling is that aprhs la uniform, le deluge.

The strength of the Chaudries, Shujaat and Pervaiz, is that they are preying on these fears, urging upon the general to go it alone and not seek any rapprochement with his rivals. And who is to blame them for this? They have been the principal beneficiaries of the present order. The general has sought power for himself. He is not creating a political dynasty, Bilal Musharraf not set to follow him as president (and thank God for that). In contrast, the Chaudries are not only exercising power but also securing their legacy by creating, wittingly or unwittingly, a political dynasty.

Shujaat is president of the Q League (from Mohammad Ali Jinnah to Chaudry Shujaat Hussain would be a nice title for a history of the Muslim League). Pervaiz is gauleiter Punjab. There is a sprinking of other Shujaat brothers in varying positions of authority. Talented Moonis, son to Pervaiz, is all set to make his political debut. He says he wants to begin from Lahore.

When Musharraf seized power he said he had come to strengthen the federation. Whether he has been successful in that or not, he has certainly strengthened the two Chaudries. Their present eminence goes beyond their wildest dreams. Nor is this all, there being punters who say that Pervaiz now has his eyes on the prime ministership.

If that happy eventuality comes to pass, whatever else happens we had better look out for what’s left of the nations trees, Pervaiz having already secured his place in history as a scourge of trees and the environment.

But I began with the cabinet, let me end with it. Leaning on Qadir Hasan for the last time, he says so many television channels have come up, and so many more are threatening to do so, that we may soon need a separate minister for each channel. Given this situation, we may still find that we have too few ministers rather than too many.