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The unexpected calm

March 03, 2012

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D-DAY has come and gone and they’re still with us. The assemblies, that is.

Remember, they weren’t supposed to be here with us at this point? Senate elections loomed, the PPP was full of doom, rivals were licking their lips, uniforms had itchy trigger fingers, judges had gavels waiting to coming crashing down — and then, calmness.

Not even a slap to shock the country and dominate coverage on election day. Some shenanigans in Balochistan were reported but if the folks in that assembly are going to be above bribery, we’d beon the verge of world peace breaking out.

So now what? Now nothing. The budget is the next milestone but the budget has lost much of its importance in recent years.

When your idea of economic management is survival one quarter of the time, 12 months isn’t really a policymaking time frame that you hold much hope for.

And then, many think, will be the general election in the late autumnal window, Oct/Nov. But as crises fade and threats recede, the smarter money is on a general election next year.

The PPP could pull a surprise and spring for local elections in Sindh and the other two provinces in which it’s a coalition partner later this year. Punjab could then be forced to follow.

So, for now, we’re just left to ponder the imponderables. Question No. 1: is Zardari a mad genius of sorts?

Because he and his government have managed to survive an extra few weeks, the country has been treated to some stuff that was fairly unfathomable just weeks ago.

The Supreme Court, tormentor-in-chief of the government, has turned its guns on the army it was supposed to be in cahoots with. The tongue-lashing the hapless lawyer of the ISI/MI got in court over missing persons was as bad as the one Babar Awan & co have suffered.

And with the Asghar Khan case — destined to go nowhere, but still — the other great ally of the court, Nawaz Sharif, has seen embarrassing old allegations trotted out. Hardly the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours kind of deal for someone who essentially got the good CJ restored.

Meanwhile, the prime minister, he of the ‘state within a state’ allegations, has been seen sitting down with the generals who tried to decapitate his government and has been talking policy stuff. It’s not quite cavorting in the sand with beach balls but it’s a heck of a lot better than trying to scratch each other’s eyes out.

And Sharif, who jumped the gun and ran to the Supreme Court on memogate, has recovered some of his poise and returned to his role as uber-democrat, chastising the generals and dealing with the PPP with equanimity.

So how much of this delicious semi-turnaround is because of the mad genius, aka the accidental president, buying time for it to become possible?

Not all of it, clearly. The generals baring their teeth were unexpectedly stared down by Gilani. And the court preparing to strike was goaded on, rather than cowed, by Zardari’s defiance: a crisis precipitated by presidential stubbornness rather than defused by presidential nous.

But here we are, in March 2012, the rickety ship that is the PPP government sailing through unexpectedly calm political waters in large part because Zardari has proved more adept than any of his peers at the political compromise. The ability to assess what he has to lose in any given situation and being willing to take the hit if necessary, it’s a new kind of politics.

We saw it again in the negotiations on the 20th Amendment. The PPP and its allies had a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly but they knew it would be tough to get everyone to vote. MNAs, straitjacketed by the constitution on constitutional votes, know how to extract their pound of flesh by disappearing at inopportune moments.

Getting 226 coalition members into the House on the day of the vote would have required an almighty effort by the party whips and then some. So the PPP turned to the PML-N, which demanded its own pound of flesh, i.e. concessions on the interim set-up before the next election and on the composition of the Election Commission.

Here is where Zardari proved yet again the difference between him and other leaders, including BB. Zardari needed the amendment passed; a consensus amendment would have shown a unified parliament, an important signal in the wake of memogate and as the Swiss-letter crisis swirled; and passage would have kept the early elections demands at bay.

So Zardari took a look at what advantages dictating the composition of the interim set-up and limiting the terms of Election Commission members offered him and decided, not much really. And so he decided to bite at the PML-N’s offer.

That’s the Zardari difference. BB would have been loath to give up something when she didn’t have to. A story has it that when she came to power the first time, it was suggested to her that PTV be put in professional hands and not made a PPP propaganda arm. BB was dismissive of the idea: PTV had been used against her and her party for the last decade and now it was her turn to use it against her opponents.

And through much of the 1990s, while BB and Nawaz knew that the Eighth Amendment undermined political stability, their zero-sum mindset drew them to the advantages it offered when in opposition. It took until one of them got a two-thirds majority of their own for the ability of presidents to dismiss parliaments to be done away with.

With Zardari, his willingness to make a deal and compromise where others wouldn’t has kept him and his government afloat longer than any of his peers.

But if it seems preposterous that the one politician in Pakistan who would rise to embrace enlightened self-interest is Asif Zardari, there is an even more surprising corollary: much of Zardari’s deal-making wouldn’t have been possible had Nawaz Sharif not matured as a politician.

A decade ago, the PML-N’s ‘Go Zardari go’ campaign would never have been followed up by parliamentary cooperation on a constitutional amendment. Instead, there would have been an insurrection in Punjab and street protests by now.Zardari and Sharif, paragons of a new political order where enlightened self-interest helps buttress the democratic process?

Now that’s a script no one would have ever thought possible.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com