THE oath-taking of the new National Assembly seemed more as the beginning of the new era than the end of the old politically controlled set-up.

It was different in mood and style from all similar occasions in the past. On the surface, the ritual of oath-taking went off smoothly, much in contrast to earlier such exercises. There was no display of the ‘go-go’ heckling or desk-thumping. Even the controversial issue over the oath whether the members were swearing by the original 1973 Constitution or the PCO-amended version was resolved soberly in a minute. Speaker Ameer Hussain, perhaps seeing the tide changing, was quick to clarify that there was no change in the wording of the oath. Yet the PPP-PMLN allies took no chance and loudly added words that ensured they were swearing by the Constitution as it was before the (November 2007) emergency.

It was obvious that beneath this restrained collective demeanor lay the latent anger that the PPP, PML-N and allies were saving for the final showdown with President Musharraf. Whether this will take place in days, weeks or months and how will determine the shape of future politics in Pakistan.

There were ironies galore. Speaker Ameer Hussain must have been in pain to take oath from his diminutive nemesis Firdaus Ashiq Awan.

The arrival of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif in the visiting galleries was marked by thunderous desk thumping whereas the presence of Chaudhry Shujaat in the other gallery, despite his frightening eye-shades, was not even acknowledged. Younger cousin Pervaiz Elahi also looked visibly coy. Gone was the bravado of fighting it out to the last. He seemed to have gone back from the newly acquired Goergio Armani prime ministerial suiting to his old made-in-Gujrat overly starched traditional dressing.

It must have been dampening for him that many PML-Q members and allies like PML-F failed to turn up at the parliamentary party meeting. Imagine the precarious situation of somebody like Pervaiz Elahi, who had always been a member of the Punjab cabinet or speaker of the provincial assembly in his record 24-year political career, except for three years in Benazir’s second government. Unlike the two heavyweights sitting across him in the galleries, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari, Pervaiz Elahi had never been to jail, never got exiled or saw his property seized. It will be quite a challenge for him to survive the rigours of the leader of the opposition, if at all his party rebels let him hold the mantle.

Similar nervousness was noticed among the few PML-Q senators or former MNAs that had taken the chance to see the proceedings. The big guns like five-time winner Sheikh Rashid, Sher Afgan and Hamayun Akhtar chose to stay away. The troika of Senators Mohammad Ali Durrani, Azeem Tariq, and Kamil Ali Agha, who provided verbal fodder to talk shows on daily basis, looked dumbfounded in the galleries. The fateha for Benazir stirred up a sense of sadness all across. It was ironic that the party that owes its power to Benazir had not invited the people she would have liked to see at her political vindication. While Bashir Riaz, Nahid Khan and Amna Piracha were noticed for their absence, the likes of new-comers like Hussain Haqqani and Babar Awan seemed to monopolise everything. May God help Asif Zardari, quipped a friend in the press gallery.

There was hardly any diplomat, general or a member of the judiciary present in the galleries, something that fellow hacks thought made the place lesser target for desperados of you know which kind.

Branded suiting

While PPP and PML-N maintained sober outlook, the MQM members were noticed for their flamboyance. The qameez-pyjama of yore had been replaced by expensive branded suiting. Perhaps Altaf Bhai should take note of this, a colleague could not resist pointing out to an MQM member.

On a serious note, the occasion evoked a mixed feeling of hopes and fears. It was the first time in the history of the country that two opposing parties have decided to share power in a transparent and congenial way. There was a general feeling of hope in the parliament that the PPP-PMLN may have learnt their lessons; they would stay together to deliver on the issue of the judiciary, the president and economic stability; they would evolve a consensus among political parties of all shades to deal with the ever increasing terrorism and devise policy about the so-called war on terrorism.

So far, most pundits in the cafeteria agreed, both parties have shown tremendous maturity in evolving the Bhurban declaration. But there were fears as well. The survival of coalition governments in the centre and all four provinces, for the first time in this country, is too good to be true. The biggest fear is that the two parties may not stay together for long.

In fact, there are more fears about the PPP than the PML-N. There was a feeling that Asif Zardari may have already mishandled the issue over the selection of the prime minister. The constant change of positions and letting the issue become a joke for the media to savour on it may have caused irreparable rift in the party. Our cafeteria pundits agreed that Amin Fahim has little chance of staging any revolt in the party at this stage. The party has come into power after 12 years and everybody wants a piece of the pie in government. He may damage his career if he falls for any trap laid down by the establishment in fighting it out with Asif at this stage. But the fact remains that a few months down the lane, when things may start to fall apart with the allies or within the party, this rift may cause graver damage to the party solidarity. A PPP member, who requested not be named, aptly said that if Benazir had to deny Makhdoom Amin Fahim the prime ministership she would have done it in such smooth way that the latter would not have felt insulted. “It’s the insult that has pinched the Makhdoom more than the denial,” said the PPP member.

Question of integrity

Others were sceptical about the eyes and ears of Asif Zardari. He may have been purged by the courts but there may still be many doubts among the public about his moral and economic integrity. “If Asif brings people with doubtful credentials the party is doomed from the start,” said the PPP member.

Another issue is over the absolute concentration of power in the hands of Asif Zardari. Journalists in the cafeteria were trying to check out top PPP members if they knew about the selection of the prime minister or the members of the cabinet. Nobody seemed to have any idea. Ahmad Mukhtar had to swear that he had not idea if he was being made the prime minister. “Believe me I have no idea about myself or any other cabinet member,” he said at the cafeteria.

Assef Ahmad Ali, the sardar who was called for signing as MNA right at noon time, was equally at sea when asked if he was becoming the foreign minister. “I have no idea about anything,” he said when bombarded with questions.

Many thought even Benazir did not keep as much decision making to her as Asif was doing.

Such may be the issues that keep the hopes of survival in the PML-Q and the president alive. But then these issues may take months, if not years to erupt, if at all they do, the moment of reckoning for the president may be far nearer.

Sardar Assef insisted that he (the president) would resign just by the moral and political pressure that he would face in the coming days. Imagine a situation when he has no paraphernalia of officers to defend him, no intelligence agencies to do the dirty works, no control of PTV and Pemra to stop the ever aggressive media, he will have little chance to survive. Even the party that he took years to tailor is clearly distancing itself from him. “When was the last time you saw any statement from the Chaudhrys in his favour,” asked Ahmad Mukhtar.

Insiders insist that the fuss over the reinstatement of judges may just be a decoy. If the president is removed, the judiciary issue will get resolved overnight. They say that the numbers game for the impeachment of the president is close to its target. “The cat will come out of the bag when the Senate Chairman is voted out,” said an insider. If you add the 26-seat margin that the coalition has over and above the two-thirds majority of 228 seats in the National Assembly, this is all that you need for the impeachment.”

Fellow pen-pushers have their fingers crossed. But this goes without saying that the showdown will happen much earlier than the PML-Q might think.

Speaker Ameer Hussain’s parting gift to the president was the verse of the Quran that he chose for recitation for the new assembly. The verse, which summons people to obey their rulers, has been misinterpreted and misused by suppressive monarchs and dictators in history. It did not work for Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq. We shall see how Musharraf fares on this count.

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