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The caretaker option

July 08, 2012


THEY won’t write the letter to get the court off their backs, they don’t know how to govern to placate an unhappy public, they can’t wrest back space from the military and the religious right to keep the democratic project on track — something’s got to give.

It comes down to this: Asif Zardari wants to get to March; everyone else wants the PPP out now.

Who will win?

For four and a half years, the PPP has survived through a combination of luck and unexpected skill. That story is well known enough.

What’s changed is something else.

For four and a half years, the PPP’s opponents, rivals and enemies — of whom there are legion — have struggled to find a way to topple the government.

They didn’t have the numbers inside parliament, they couldn’t muster the strength on the street, they weren’t getting a clear signal from the army and they didn’t know how to circumvent constitutional constraints in the presence of a court that
defied a dictator.

But an important piece has fallen into place recently. The court has dropped any pretence of being above the political fray, of issuing edicts in line with the letter and spirit of the law and of accepting its role as a watchdog.

This opens up possibilities.

One prime minister down, another on the rack, the journey from here to an ouster of the lot of them is shorter than it’s been
in four and a half years.

It’s not as if the court were acting in concert with the other players. A fight between the government and the judiciary is what got us here.

A fight the government could have avoided had it strategised differently — write the damn letter, the court’s options originally were limited — or used better tactics — appeal Gilani’s conviction to try and buy time like it had done from the
beginning; don’t tweak Malik Riaz to go after the court.

But of such mistakes are born opportunities for others and we’re now in a place where the judicial sword has been unwittingly sharpened and can be brought crashing down on the government itself.

The selection of Raja was another mistake. In political terms it wasn’t an unforced error: a last-second appointment after a less controversial nominee was sidelined, Raja was a poor choice picked in difficult circumstances and with little time left to canvass for better consensus options.

But a mistake it was and it works to the court’s advantage.

Taking out Gilani was a more difficult ask. Yes, he furiously padded the family nest. Yes, the office he occupied was a few sizes too big for him. Yes, he’ll be quickly forgotten by history.

But he was a unanimously elected prime minister in a fairly legitimately elected parliament and he was being chucked out for something that wasn’t his decision to make — that caused unease in less partisan quarters.

Raja Rental is different. His reputation is mud and he hasn’t had a chance to wash some of it off with a constituency victory yet. He symbolises everything that is wrong with this government. Administering the last rites to his premiership will be cheered on from the sidelines by most.

That knowledge will give the court more confidence to strike a second time, as if the court needed any more confidence.

Take two prime ministers out in a matter of weeks and the country will be primed for a bigger upheaval.

Which is why the dog-and-pony show is already doing the rounds of Islamabad and Pindi. The ones who yearn to serve — ostensibly the public but in reality just their masters — are straining at the leash again, hoping both to precipitate a new dispensation and be part of it when it is ushered in.

For now, of all the possible alternatives — to the extent that any are likely and will come to fruition — the military-lite option is the favourite: an extended caretaker set-up of technocrats and ‘clean’ politicians with the explicit backing of the court and the silent backing of the military.

The long-rumoured option has stayed ahead of the alternatives — direct military rule and dissolution of parliament followed immediately by elections being the hard and soft options — precisely because it offers a middle course.

Gen K cannot or may not want to take charge of the mess he’s helped create: cannot because his extension, WikiLeaks and the shocks of 2011 have rendered him a lame duck; may not want to because he perhaps understands that his institution
can’t run the domestic show while simultaneously waging a war internally and fending off the Americans in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the politicians, Mian Sahib in particular, will not accept being shut out of power for another extended period. An extended caretaker set-up, then, would offer an acceptable compromise to the parties with constituencies to protect.

It would knock out the PPP from the race and thus preclude the canny Zardari from winning re-election, while at the same time dangling the prospect of a return to power for the others within a couple of years.

The draw of the middle option — the extended caretaker set-up — is that it would give everyone arrayed against the PPP something, or at least the hope of getting something eventually.

The court would fulfil its desire to give Pakistan a new direction. The army would get a more competent administration fully in line with its national-security paradigm. The politicians would get rid of the PPP and have a shot at contesting power in
the absence of a heavyweight competitor within a couple of years.

At this point, Zardari doesn’t have many options left.

He can either abandon his goal of completing the government’s term or wait and see if his foes eventually get their target.

The real question on which all of this hinges: will CJ Iftikhar sanctify an option that many want but few believe has
constitutional legitimacy? Judicial cover is a necessary condition for an extended caretaker set-up to happen.

Will CJ Iftikhar march to the brink but ultimately blink or will he bring his gavel crashing down with an eye to history and his back to the lessons it has taught others before?

Nobody but CJ Iftikhar knows the answer to that just now.

We — you and me, the public at the mercy of power politics and a squabbling, fractious elite — have less than six months to find out.

The writer is a member of staff.

twitter: @cyalm