The logjam breaks

Published October 19, 2007

CARPING and cynicism aside — and we are good at both — this is proving to be a smooth change: from the old to something not entirely new (for that would be stretching the point) but something different.

The Daughter of the East’s second homecoming, the first being way back in 1986, is part of this American-guided transition.

Ruling Q League loudspeakers may shout as much as they want that her arrival will make no difference. But it will, as they know in their hearts. Gen Pervez Musharraf has supped alone at the table of power for eight long years, challenged only by political pygmies, or collaborators dressed up as rival knights, as in the case of our holy fathers, masters of political disguise.The two heavyweights who could have mattered, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, were for their own reasons out of the country. Now one of them has come back, signalling an end to the era of unchallenged power. Whatever the stigma of the ‘deal’ she has reached with the general — and without the safe passage guaranteed by this deal she would not have been returning — the fact remains that the PPP is not a dummy party like the Q League and Benazir Bhutto is not a smooth-talking dummy like our gift from Citibank, Shaukat Aziz (which does not mean that her path to the prime ministership is assured).

Consider also that Pakistan’s second longest-serving army chief (the longest being Zia) will soon be stepping out of uniform. Unless he wants to plunge the army into turmoil this is something he will have to do. A uniform-less Musharraf, a reinvigorated Benazir Bhutto — one, moreover, laughing up her sleeve at the way she has managed to get a blanket amnesty for corruption cases past from the very man who denounced her no end for corruption — a Q League uncertain if not fearful of its future, a pretty powerful media and an assertive judiciary: all this marks a change from the monochrome colours of the past eight years.

Admittedly not the transition some of us were hoping for. When the judicial crisis broke, threatening Musharraf’s grip on power, I was convinced it was curtains for him. Ah, the rush to judgment. We knew the stuff the opposition parties were made of but we weren’t counting on them to be so self-absorbed as to sabotage the larger objective (of preventing a phony presidential election).

In the event, their divisiveness proved Musharraf’s strongest card, enabling him to fix his election the way he wanted. The only obstacle remaining before he is officially anointed president is the ongoing case in the Supreme Court which decides whether he could be candidate in uniform. Everything else has gone pretty much his way.

Even so, although the wait has been long, we are moving into new territory, the contours of which will become clearer after the coming elections. The kind of one-man rule we have seen these past eight years will have to be tempered. No matter who is prime minister, the new game in town will be power-sharing, Musharraf having to adjust to a new style of doing things.

You don’t have to be a clairvoyant to see this. A militarised president is a different thing altogether. A civilian presidency will come with its own implications. (Although the next time Q League Secretary General Mushahid Hussain says Gen Musharraf will soon be Mr Musharraf, I’ll probably reach for my gun.)

The Q League is in for a period of adjustment and surprises. There are elements within it which don’t see eye to eye with party president, Shujaat Hussain, or his cousin Pervaiz Elahi, chief minister of Punjab. Trust such elements not to be too upset by a resurgent PPP. In fact, any cutting down to size of the two Chaudhries will be welcomed in those quarters.

So no surprises if Shujaat and Pervaiz are deeply worried. Their body language shows it; their tone betrays their inner feelings. Until now they have been the prime beneficiaries of Musharraf’s militarised democracy, wielding the kind of power they couldn’t have imagined. This was one clan I used to think who could do without making more money, so rewarding were their many industrial undertakings. But even in monetary terms they have made more hay during the Musharraf years.

And now the family’s third generation stands impatiently in the wings eager to enter the political scene, Pervaiz’s son, Moonis, cultivating the airs of a Prince of Wales-in-waiting. Musharraf taking on board another set of passengers is like Banquo’s ghost appearing at their table. Who likes a feast interrupted or threatened?

Benazir’s deal with Musharraf has triggered a great deal of moral outrage. But much of it is misdirected. Since when has high-level corruption been a new thing in Pakistan? Benazir and the PPP lost their innocence in this regard two decades ago. The Sharifs know a thing or two about making money. And who the intrepid soul who will say that all has been above board during the era of ‘enlightened moderation’? If anything, moneymaking has been sophisticated during this period, involving the stock exchange and the sale of public assets.

Indeed, for unabashed financial skullduggery this is the most enabling country in the world.

After seizing power Musharraf launched an anti-corruption drive which put many movers and shakers behind bars. But this fizzled out at the altar of political necessity. Politicos agreeing to join the Q League, the ultimate retiring home of the financially compromised, saw their prosecutions drying up. Many found a berth in the cabinet. The deal amnestying Benazir may be breathtaking in its audacity but as its essentials go, it breaks no new ground. It merely follows one of the most hallowed traditions of Pakistani politics.

Benazir is now a more assured person. The Swiss deals back in the period 1988-90 of which we have heard so much were expressions of financial adolescence. Giving a Swiss company (Cotecna) a contract and then putting commissions in an offshore account: what can be more pedestrian than this? But the oil-for-food deal for which some kind of a prosecution is pending with the Spanish authorities, now that’s something else. It shows a coming of age, a panache missing 10 years ago.

Benazir’s partner in the Iraqi deal was Rehman Malik, formerly of the FIA and now her most trusted confidant. I know Malik as a friend and can safely say that he is brighter than most of the wizards flitting in the corridors of Army House. There won’t be too many loose ends left unattended where he is around.

However, the new chariot being put together by circumstances and our American friends will remain unbalanced unless both its wheels are of equal size, and this won’t happen unless Musharraf can see the wisdom of allowing Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan. The Q League is no match for Benazir. In fact, as time passes she will make porridge of the Q League.

To play the role of umpire, to divide and rule — GHQ’s most enduring political tactic — Sharif has to be allowed home so that he and Benazir, picking up from where they had left off, can return to the fray, at each other’s throat immediately, enabling the army to retrieve lost pride, turn up its nose and say once more, ‘Look what a mess the politicians are making.’

Even as the new beckons, some things never change.

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