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Is change in the air?

December 01, 2006


WHETHER anyone designed it this way or not, the Women’s Protection Bill is the best thing to have happened in Pakistan for a long time. Not so much for what it contains but for what it has led to: the entrapment of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) leadership in the web of its own cunning and the prospects of a rapprochement between Gen Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto’s PPP.

The mullahs are trapped, that’s for sure. If they resign from the National Assembly as they have sworn to do, they lose influence without getting anything in return, least of all public sympathy, the Pakistani people tired of the religious leadership’s prowess in the most amazing gymnastics. If they don’t resign, they will become more of a laughing stock than they already are: the butt of endless jokes.

The general perception is that the ‘ruling party’ president, Shujaat, got the MMA into this mess. Shujaat’s family has an old history of animosity with the PPP (no point in going into all the gory details) and his main interest was to block the PPP from getting close to Musharraf. The mullahs were led to expect that their threat to resign from the assemblies would compel the government to back down, robbing the PPP of the opportunity to come to the government’s assistance.

Alas, both Shujaat and the mullahs miscalculated. Instead of backing down, Musharraf held his ground (perhaps the bravest thing he has done in his career) and insisted that the bill be pushed through parliament.

The mullahs are in a quandary. Qazi Hussain Ahmad of the Jamaat-i-Islami, whose enthusiasm often gets the better of his judgment, insists on walking out of the National Assembly although it is not exactly clear what he hopes to get out of it. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, whose political antennae are sharper, is desperately looking for a way out of this dead end.

The plight of the maulanas is a sight for sore eyes, much-needed comic relief in a barren landscape.

Any rapprochement between the regime and the PPP is yet to happen. But there is talk of it in the air and there is enough telltale evidence to suggest that something is cooking behind the scenes. Amin Fahim’s remark that the PPP would be willing to contest elections under Musharraf is but the latest indication of this, a readiness that hasn’t gone down well with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N.

Nawaz Sharif’s predicament is easy to understand. As long as Musharraf is in power, all doors are shut for him. Say what he likes, Musharraf, the undisputed king of this quasi-military set-up, will not allow him to return to Pakistan until 2010, that being the understanding with the Saudis when they were permitted to fly the coop and go to Saudi Arabia in 2000.

The very nature of this predicament dictates a hard line. When there is no room for compromise, there is little to be gained from talk of compromise. The younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is the Maulana Fazlur Rahman in the Sharif brotherhood, impatient at times to explore the frontiers of pragmatism. But he doesn’t run the PML-N. The Sharifs therefore are reduced to consulting the stars and sipping the cup of patience.

They will come into their own when the time comes. But when will that be? Heavy the tribulation of the man counting his days and waiting for his moment to arrive.

Benazir Bhutto’s circumstances are different. She has everything to gain and little to lose from an understanding with Musharraf. Corruption charges soil her political linen. This may not matter much in Pakistan where she remains one of the only two leaders to matter with the public, the other being Nawaz Sharif. But Swiss courts are a different matter and the sword of the Swiss corruption cases — money from kickbacks, etc — hang over her head.

Besides, she has no real quarrel with Musharraf. They are on the same wavelength as far as the western-sponsored agenda of ‘enlightened moderation’ is concerned. And it is no accident that western power brokers whose word and counsel matter in Islamabad — Pakistan, given the complexion of its ruling class, one of the world’s greatest suckers for foreign advice — have been encouraging Musharraf to go ahead and reach out to the PPP.

Nothing as yet is decided but because of these straws in the wind, the PPP is already becoming the flavour of the season. In the run-up to the next elections the usual thing would have been for political hopefuls to form a beeline in front of the Q League. But that is not happening. The only cinema for whose tickets there is some kind of a rush is the PPP.

But I hope the PPP doesn’t meet the fate of the Tehrik-i-Istiqlal (Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s party) in 1979. In the expectation that the Air Marshal would be the next prime minister, Gen Zia himself encouraging this belief, every Charlie and his uncle was joining the Tehrik-i-Istiqlal which was even going about compiling lists of cabinet members.

Then on October 16 Zia threw a bombshell by cancelling the elections set for November and declaring his commitment to Islamisation. The Air Marshal was put under house arrest in which state he remained for five years.

As I said, I hope the same fate doesn’t befall the PPP, if only for the sake of my friends Fakhr Imam and Abida Hussain, who in a political life with its fair share of principled crossovers from this side to that, have now cast their anchor in the waters of the PPP. Abida, whose house in Islamabad is the closest thing we have to a French salon — with the additional advantage that most of the time the only voice you get to hear is hers — used to be hilarious at the PPP’s expense. I eagerly await her recital of Benazir’s hidden qualities which she has now discovered.

But what’s there in it for Musharraf? What the necessity for him to take the PPP on board?

Firstly, his B team, the mullahs of the MMA, no longer suit his western backers. The MMA may not be Taliban — they certainly aren’t — but many of them look like Taliban and our western patrons, whose largesse since Sept 11 has been sustaining our economy and allowing senior military ranks to live a good life and do well in the property business (look at all the defence housing authority-sponsored ads for Portuguese villas and Spanish-style houses), want none of that.

Secondly, the Q League, to quote Abdul Qadir Hasan in the Express, has reached its expiry date and any further intake of its medicine can be injurious to health. It has served its purpose. Not that the Chaudries are being thrown to the wolves, not by a long shot. But they will have to live with other players on the political chessboard. That at least is what the signs suggest, unless of course Musharraf ends up doing a Tehrik-i-Istiqlal on the PPP.

Even the best of vehicles, the best of computers, need reconditioning after some time. Shujaat and Pervez Ellahi are yesterday’s fashions. You can still wear them but no one will call you smart if you do.

Musharraf’s closed circle of aides comprises a few major players. Among them his principal secretary, Lt-Gen. Hamid Javed, secretary of the largely moribund National Security Council, Tariq Aziz, the ISI chief, Lt-Gen Pervaiz Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of Military Intelligence, Maj-Gen Mian Nadeem Ejaz, and the Intelligence Bureau chief, Brigadier. Ejaz Shah. They can help make or mar a deal with other political forces. Their role will be crucial in the coming year.

Why is some kind of an arrangement important? Because it will help move Pakistan out of the political rut it has been in since October ‘99. Shaukat Aziz and the Q League are programmed to take orders and dance to the army’s tune. Benazir Bhutto is neither Shaukat Aziz nor Zafarullah Jamali. The PPP is not the Q League. For all its shortcomings, and they are huge, the PPP, being a real political party and not a pantomime show as the Q League is, will make a difference. Its mere presence in Islamabad will help alter the political landscape.

(Not that I am preparing to join the PPP. I even know what my column will be if the PPP really makes it: Return of the Clowns.) The PML-N is sure to take such a development amiss. But it should realise that the PPP’s entry into the corridors of power will provide more of a breathing space for other political parties, except of course the MMA which faces the prospect, if current trends hold, of stewing in its own juice.

The army under Zia lit the bonfires of extremism and helped make Pakistan the confused and directionless ship in the turbulent sea that it is today. If circumstances are conspiring to modify its thinking (although I could be guilty of exaggeration on this count), we should rejoice at the outcome and hope for the best.