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When a coup suits a party

January 17, 2012

WHEN a crowd of voices makes distinction difficult, some are forced to sacrifice consistency to distinguish themselves from the pack. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is someone who can make his modern-day pronouncements without digressing from the set path.

On Sunday, a typically angry Shahbaz Sharif demanded an apology from Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

The chief minister, whose distrust of the federal government goes much deeper in time than the general calls for a banishment of the ZardariGilani set-up, wants the prime minister to apologise to Pakistanis over his remarks about army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani and ISI chief Lt Gen Shuja Pasha.

The Punjab chief minister takes issue with a statement by the embattled Mr Gilani in which he had questioned the route taken by the two army officers to answer the court's query in memogate.

Shahbaz is sure the prime minister is forwarding a plan to pit one institution against another and is least pleased by the use of parliament for forwarding petty personal interests. True to form, he is quick to trace the origins of this grand conspiracy to the current occupant of the presidency, which Shahbaz's party wants to throw out as soon as possible so that early elections can be held under a fair, interim government.

Shahbaz Sharif's thinking is consistent with the old theory that unfortunately not all politicians who are elected by people here can pass the basic test of being patriotic Pakistanis. Taking the same train of thought, some prime ministers are less capable of respecting our chief defenders and minding our nuclear store than others.

Yet Shahbaz's remarks area break of sorts from the campaign for civilian supremacy everyone including his party and its chief Mian Nawaz Sharif swears by. He chose to speak on the subject and given his position as the more rigid face of the opposition with a record of leading the driveagainst the government, his words would make people wonder if anything has changed in Pakistani politics.

It is as if in one abrupt sweep he is out to dismantle the holy democratic edifice that we Pakistanis have painfully built over the last four years with our tolerance of an inept government.

The truth is that unlike a host of other political commentators who are under no obligation to replace what they are so keen to destroy, in each of his actions Shahbaz is seen to be promoting himself as the alternative that can be trusted.

Is it only good politics where one politician is rightfully trying to score points against another? Or is it a continuation of the old pattern in which the politicians are ever so eager to find favour with the 'establishment' to establish their own little candidatures? Shabbaz's statement is complemented by the helter-skelter remarks sheet on the army by fellow politician Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani. It seems as if both incumbents and pretenders are probing for answers here. They are groping as are others, yet a coup has somehow come to be described as a museum articlein Pakistan.

Contradictions emerge and confusion reigns. A coup is ruled out even if in popular media narratives a prime minister is shown to have called a western ambassador in panic 'apparently' updating His ExceHencyonthechancesofa military takeover and the effects it could have on the world at large.

Protected by western oversight that is subject to the foreigners' own interests at a particular moment, this is how fragile democracy is and the working of our politicians does little to reassure us of our own ability to guard our system.

Opposition politicians argue in favour of early elections. The media adds it weight. The strangest part is when it is described as an exit favourable (and honourable) for the PPP. Political logic speaks otherwise.

Politics that culminates in snap polls hardly suits the PPP as a political party since conceding to the opposition's demands would amount to the PPP signing its own indictment. It has no option but to perpetuate its rule and hope for political redemption in making its removal appear as close to a coup as possible.

A summary dismissal, even a make-believe coup, would suit the PPP which, in the words of one of its bewildered MNAs, is at a loss to understand what more it could do to appease the 'establishment' The PPP has taken a lot of pressure, but its ouster may take some more time and it will take a lot of skill from the opposition politicians to deny the party the victim's tag, for whatever its worth.

The argument has been changing and will intensify once the PPP agrees to holding early elections. Just as, purely politically, Husain Haqqani's resignation to allow a fair probe into the memo was later declared a sign of guilt, the allegations against this PPP government will get louder once it signs its ownindictment by way of announcing early elections.

This is simple and the same logic can be applied to understand why the government is reluctant to write that harmless letter to the Swiss government. In pure political terms the moment the government dispatches that letter to Switzerland under the court's ruling on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), it will be vulnerable to being viewed as guilty by many if not all as it happened with Haqqani's voluntary resignation in the memo case.

If there is a surprise in this, it lies in the impression that the PPP is finally looking beyond its current term, which in turn is indicative of how weak its government currently is. The PPP had fought the last election as a party that had benefited from the infamous NRO. That fact will remain unchanged come the next polls.

The verdict by the people's jury this time around may well be different. The argument has changed and out there in the people's court, there is no such thing as double jeopardy.

The writer is Dawn's resident editor in Lahore.