By Adrian A Husain
POWER can at times appear shamanistic. It is able to steal into hearts, subtly persuade and, with devastating logic, finally prevail. The political adroitness of Asif Ali Zardari, the new president-elect of the country, has achieved precisely this.
No mere ‘accident’ or proxy, he succeeded, on the contrary, in converting two-thirds of Pakistan’s electoral college to his way of thinking and taking it along with him to clinch the top slot in the country. It has been a bravura performance that has brought even detractors up short.
Zardari’s has, of course, been the victory of realpolitik. Unimpeded by qualms about good faith, the road to it has proven compellingly Machiavellian. Its beauty lay in the curious combination of guile and temerity displayed, alike, in Zardari’s dealings with erstwhile foes and allies recently turned adversaries.
The path ahead may be fraught with uncertainty and hazard. Our economy is teetering at the edge. There are the Taliban and inter civil-military sensitivities to address. There is the delicate issue of Pakistan’s reportedly sought-after nukes and the question of whether some of the historical baggage of absolutism needs jettisoning. But for the time being, there is just the sweet smell of success.
Does this mean that the other major political player in the country, Nawaz Sharif has all but been consigned to oblivion? Some analysts seem to hold this view. But it is short-sighted.
If Sharif and his PML-N cohorts are to be heard making conciliatory pro-democracy noises, this should not be construed as a sign of weakness. Apart from the fact that the party comfortably held its majority in the presidential election in Punjab, there is method in what Sharif appears to be saying — with an eye to the long-term.Not enough attention has been paid to his discourse on a politics of ‘values’ as opposed to power. What are these ‘values’? We must take these as having arisen out of Sharif’s personal experience of power: notably, the catharsis of his imprisonment and subsequent exile.
Topping his list would logically seem to be the primacy of human dignity and civil rights. Yet his quest is equally for the overall democratisation of Pakistan: the sovereignty of parliament, the supremacy of the country’s constitution and, of course, the independence of its judiciary.
This explains his unremitting advocacy of the restitution of all our deposed judges, something that, no matter how apparently improbable, would serve to guarantee the return of some semblance of the rule of law to the country. It is linked in turn to some very genuine apprehensions on his part about the future of the federation.
So instead of the impetuously self-seeking politico of yore, we see someone quite different today: a man aspiring to give the country what he feels it desperately needs by making principle fundamental to the business of politics. Though belated, this has nevertheless allowed Sharif to regain the trust of at least a portion of a formerly disenchanted electorate.
Yet, unlike Zardari, he also seems to be flying in the teeth of some inescapable historical realities. If, for instance, he is to be acceptable to the West — as he surely must to achieve more than just informal head-of-opposition status — he will have to come to terms with the need to contain the insurgency on the tribal belt, militarily and not just through ‘peaceful’ dialogue.
This does not mean that we must cynically barter away our citizens or pursue military solutions in the region to the exclusion of all else. And, clearly, incursions by US forces into our territory are not on. But it does imply sitting up to the facts on the ground and realising that we simply must clean house. Regardless of the origins of its components, the Taliban apparat has to be dismantled.
It may be that — like many in civil society — Sharif also exists in a sort of time warp or is out of touch with what is happening in the wings. He may be blinkered for one of two reasons. It is possible that he has simply been away from the scene for too long. Alternatively, this may be attributed to his parochial mindset and an inability to perceive the sea change that has come about in the smaller provinces or that the country has moved beyond a point where it can be reinvented in keeping with his faintly quixotic format.
The insurgency in the NWFP and Balochistan and the uprising in Sindh in the aftermath of Benazir’s assassination all point in the same direction. Belief in the federation would seem perceptibly to be on the wane. The smaller provinces all share, as never before, a growing sense of alienation. The feeling by and large is that they are, and have been from the start, less equal or indeed ‘federal’ than Punjab. This is something Sharif is not perhaps reckoning with.
Zardari’s candidature for the presidency may have been controversial but it also plainly had the support of these political margins. Reports relating to his mental illness and unaccounted for wealth were, his supporters here felt, mere hogwash designed to do them out of their legitimate democratic right. At the same time, given the somewhat awkward questions surrounding his name and the fact that authoritarian rule was no longer in vogue, there were those who saw an element of chutzpah about his sudden bid for absolute power.
However, now that Zardari has won out, it is important that civil society give him a chance by taking its cue from Sharif in not trying to destabilise the new dispensation. What matters is that we address issues that concern us more directly. The judges’ issue over which the PPP–PML-N coalition came apart is crucial. It still awaits resolution. The ‘reappointment’ of judges piecemeal smacks just very slightly of expediency.
The insistence of Sharif and the top PML-N leadership that the pre-Nov 3 judiciary — along with Iftikhar Chaudhry — be restored in one go speaks of a commitment to constitutionality and the rule of law not just for now but in the long term.
This is heartening as it suggests that they share our concerns and are thinking about a viable future for a country seriously at odds with itself and — Zardari’s victory notwithstanding — with an increasingly nebulous horizon.