ISLAMABAD, Nov 2: An air of uncertainty and apprehension pervaded the federal capital on Friday as reports started filtering through that the government was contemplating taking “extraordinary steps” to wriggle out of an “extraordinary situation”.

But as the case on the president’s re-election dragged out in

the Supreme Court, Gen Pervez Musharraf and his aides were undecided on whether to adopt the constitutional path by imposing emergency rule under Article 232 of the ‘green book’ or resort to extra-constitutional measures like ‘emergency-plus’ — a euphemism for martial law.

Highly informed sources said the government had put off the imposition of emergency only after Washington and a number of other western capitals established contacts with President Pervez Musharraf on Thursday and Friday, advising him against taking any extra-constitutional step.

However, these sources hastened to add, the proposal was still on the table, and, depending on how the situation unfolds over the next few days, drastic steps could be taken to prevent the ‘derailment’ of the system.

The head of the United States Centcom, Admiral William J. Fallon, on Friday met almost every top civilian and military official who matters in Pakistan. He broached not only the security situation in the NWFP, but also sounded out his interlocutors on the “extraordinary measures” under discussion.

Coinciding with Admiral Fallon’s meetings were comments made by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, during a visit to Turkey in which she urged President Musharraf to go ahead with the general election and conveyed Washington’s opposition to extra-constitutional means, according to Reuters news agency.

These back-channel diplomatic efforts notwithstanding, rumours about the imposition of emergency would not go away. A number of sources believed the emergency would entail suspension of fundamental rights and the curtailment of the judiciary’s powers.

Senior ministers like Sheikh Rashid Ahmed did admit that all options were under consideration, but kept on insisting that nothing was final as it was a part of the ongoing process to exhaust various options to end the uncertainty.

Although the ministers cited a number of factors that, according to them, demanded emergency rule, religious militancy and attacks on security forces among them, analysts thought the biggest cause at the heart of the “crisis management exercise” was judicial activism.

Sources said consultations on various options started last week after the president’s camp started backing its hunch that the Supreme Court would deliver an adverse verdict in Gen Musharraf’s eligibility case.

With the cut-off date of Nov 15 approaching — when the National Assembly would stand dissolved and Gen Musharraf’s current five-year term would end — senior officials in the president’s camp have become jittery.

According to the sources, the meetings in the ruling camp heard a gamut of options ranging from accepting the court verdict even — if it was against the president — to imposition of a constitutional emergency or declaring a “martial law-like emergency rule”. The latter, according to observers, would allow the government to clip the judiciary’s powers on matters of fundamental rights. However, a senior official denied that the imposition of martial law had been mooted at the meetings.

The media also came under scrutiny at these meetings, reliable sources said. Some participants called for measures against private television networks.

Reliable sources said President Musharraf had spent almost the entire Thursday night in consultations with the bigwigs of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League as well as his aides and intelligence chiefs. He reportedly asked the prime minister to take the coalition partners on board in the matter.

Shaukat Aziz had wide-ranging consultations on Friday with PML chief Shujaat Hussain, the National Assembly Speaker, the law minister and the Chief Whip.

Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid and an MQM team, led by Minister Shamim Siddiqui, also called on the premier separately. The first meeting discussed arrangements for the proposed National Assembly session to ratify a proclamation of emergency, the sources said. Ruling party circles have suggested Nov 5 as a probable date for summoning of the National Assembly. The government had asked the ruling party’s lawmakers to stay in the capital till further orders, according to sources. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain said that the PML had started preparations for the general election, informing journalists that the party would set up a parliamentary board next week to award tickets for the elections.

A source claimed that Law Minister Zahid Hamid had taken members of the ruling group into confidence about the draft of the emergency proclamation order.

The Minister of State for Information, Senator Tariq Azeem, would not give anything away about the deliberations. “Rest assured neither emergency nor martial law is being imposed.”

The minister, who later participated in a talk show on a private television network, repeatedly said no “extraordinary step” was being contemplated. Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, too, ruled out martial law, but did not rule out the imposition of emergency, saying that it was a “constitutional way to overcome the crisis”.

Talking to Dawn, he said “far-reaching decisions” were likely over the “next five days”. He parried a question about PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto’s sudden dash to Dubai or possibility of her return. A highly placed official told Dawn that the process of consultations was still going on and no final shape had been given to anything so far.

But no assurance has been enough to restrain the grapevine, particularly in the wake of a clear signal from the president’s camp that come what may, he was not going to relinquish power unceremoniously.