May 31, 2008

Something is about to happen

Filed under: NEW GOVERNMENT AFTER MARCH 24-2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 1:50 am
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MAY 30, 2008

By Shafqat Mahmood

We bear the curse of living in interesting times. Since Wednesday evening, the country has been in the grip of various rumours; some predict Musharraf’s imminent departure, others the demise of the National Assembly. The wildest of these is the imposition of martial law.

This paper also broke the news of a lengthy meeting between Mr Musharraf and the army chief on Wednesday evening. In normal times, this may have passed off as a routine get-together between old colleagues. But, in this climate of uncertainty, it has assumed great significance, as has the change in command of the famous Triple One Brigade in Rawalpindi.

Rumours start when there is a gap in information; that is why the best media policy for any government should be a high degree of transparency. The problem in our environment is that we exist on two levels of reality. There is the visible aspect, in which politics and governance takes place, if not transparently then at least at a level that can be understood and analysed.

Then there is the subterranean world of behind-the-scene intrigues in which plots are hatched, conspiracies unfolded, and in which shadowy players and intelligence agencies become dominant actors. This happens in countries where rule of law or dictates of the constitution are not worth the paper they are written on and can be set aside on a whim. It is here that raw, naked power creates its own reality.

We are condemned to live in such a place. It was not too long ago that we celebrated the results of the Feb. 18 election and looked forward to ascendancy in the system of democratic forces. It may still happen, because miracles do sometimes take place, but bizarre rumours always reflect perceptions of reality. The very fact that people can think about issues like a sudden resignation of the president or packing up of the assemblies by him, and even of martial law, suggests that nothing is ruled out by them. It is a grim recognition of the inherent lawlessness of our polity.

This adds to the difficulty of analysing the flow of events. Any decent commentary is possible either on facts freely available in the public domain or on some inside information. Those of us who write try to mix the two, so that we are not caught out making predictions that are outlandish or plain wrong. But it is not easy because the subterranean world that I referred to earlier has twists and turns that are extremely difficult to fathom.

Take, for example, a combination of the following news items. Mr Zardari calls Musharraf a relic of the past, and that too to an Indian news agency. Mr Gilani, the prime minister, not only vows to work with him but points out his many qualities. Inter-Services Public Relations says that the media is making too much of the long meeting between Gen Ashfaq Kayani and Mr Musharraf. It also points out that the change in command of the Triple One Brigade is nothing more than a routine posting. We then hear that Mohammadmian Soomro, the Senate chairman who will be acting president if Mr Musharraf resigns, has been asked to cut short his visit to Germany and return home [a report which has since been denied].

We can take these events at face value. Mr Zardari called Musharraf a relic, but he only meant to say that he belongs to the older regime, and there is nothing significant saying it to an Indian news agency. Mr Gilani has truly become an admirer of Mr Musharraf and is not afraid to say so. The ISPR always says it like it is and these meetings and transfers are all routine. Mr Soomro is coming home because the budget session is close and he would like to preside over the Senate session that will be called along with the National Assembly.

There can, of course, be another take on the same events. Mr Zardari has initiated a war on Musharraf because this not only improves his standing with his coalition partners but, more importantly, it improves his sagging popularity with the people. Mr Gilani is saying nice words to balance what Mr Zardari has said, and also to beguile Musharraf before the PPP administers the guillotine. The army chief met Musharraf to tell him to quit and with the change in command of the Triple One Brigade, he now has the instrument to match his words with action. Mr Soomro is coming back earlier than scheduled because he should be around to take over as acting president after Musharraf resigns.

Which of the two explanations would you accept? The greater likelihood is the second, because in lawless polities anything is possible at anytime, and you know this. Let me add a few more twists. I think Musharraf called Gen Kayani because he wanted to assess his options. I don’t think he has any desire to quit unless circumstances force him to, and he wanted to find out that in case the coalition parties decide to impeach him, can he rely on the army’s support.

What kind of support would he be looking for? He would want the army to enforce his order in case he decides to dissolve the assemblies and dismiss the government. He may also have explored the option of another emergency or martial law, and this is not possible without the help of the army. Remember he is a desperate man and has been known in the past to take reckless steps. He is not the one to go easily into the night and would be willing to try anything and everything before he quits.

What would have been General Kayani’s response? This is where the change in command of the Triple One Brigade becomes important. Musharraf still possesses the power to sack the army chief and the fact that some such stories have surfaced in the recent past is not just a happenstance. It must be something that he may have considered. But now, with his loyalist no longer in command of the Triple One Brigade, his ability to enforce this decision has eroded, if not finished altogether.

In this backdrop, General Kayani’s response is not difficult to decipher. He must have said, Sir, please leave the army out of politics and don’t ask us to enforce any steps against the democratic norms. Why would Kayani say this? Even if one is not willing to concede that he is a professional soldier who truly wants the army to remain out of the political fray, he is not a desperate man like Musharraf. He understands that the climate in the country is not in favour of the army supporting controversial and anti-democratic steps. His answer would thus be of a realist, even if one is not willing to grant any democratic romanticism to him.

If events have indeed panned out in this way, Musharraf’s options have become very limited. He can either hope that the Zardari-led coalition would not take him on or he can resign with some modicum of dignity intact. Knowing him, though, I will venture that he will wait to be unceremoniously shown the door.


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