Three interesting developments took place in Pakistan’s murky political environment this week. President Asif Zardari presided over a meeting of the Central Executive Committee of the ruling PPP which blasted the government for its bad governance but also rallied behind its besieged leader and authorised a cabinet reshuffle; Mian Nawaz Sharif gave a TV interview in which he made significant comments on how to move forward and save democracy from conspirators; and Transparency International published its annual report which indicts Pakistan as the 42nd most corrupt country in the world, up from 47th position last year, but holds out the promise of improvement next year.
Clearly, Mr Zardari is making a last-ditch effort to close ranks. That is why he allowed his party stalwarts to air their grievances. The CEC meeting is also a signal that he is the leader of the party and it is he who calls the shots and not the prime minister who is there on sufferance. At the same time, he has authorised the PM to reshuffle the cabinet to improve performance and defray criticism. This is meant to silence dissenters and bring them into the cabinet loop, whilst serving another discreet purpose: corrupt cronies may lose their jobs, allaying some of the establishment’s disquiet.
Coupled with this retreat, Mr Zardari has also indicated a hardening of the government’s position on dealing with India and the United States. This is in line with the thinking of the military that has been annoyed by the PPP government’s “soft line” vis a vis both foreign powers and undue haste in conceding their demands. India’s refusal to open unconditional talks for conflict resolution with Pakistan has now been met with a reassertion of Pakistan’s maximalist position on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The same approach is now manifest in the government’s position on Af-Pak: Islamabad says it is one of the main “principals” in the great game and the US should take its interests into consideration while reviewing options on Afghanistan. This is a far cry from the Musharraf regime’s position that it supported the US war on terror but was not an active player in its resolution. Indeed, the military has leaned on the PPP government to argue forcefully for bringing India into the Af-Pak equation because India’s footprint looms large in Afghanistan and is inimical to Pakistan’s geo-strategic interests.
Mr Sharif’s meeting with the PM last week, followed by a revealing interview to the country’s largest TV channel for maximum effect, is in the same vein. It seeks to bury the minus-one, minus-two or minus-three formulas without abandoning the PMLN’s goal to get rid of the 17th amendment and pave the way for Mr Sharif’s return as a third term prime minister. Mr Sharif says he doesn’t want a mid-term election, which is meant to reassure Mr Zardari. Mr Sharif’s foray into legal waters – Mr Zardari is protected by the constitution from being targeted by any NRO or criminal proceeding – is aimed at assuring his longevity as president; and his criticism of the army’s public displeasure with the Kerry-Lugar Bill is meant to signal his firm opposition to any military intervention at the expense of democracy.
Mr Sharif’s clarity of mind over how the military mishandled the Kerry-Lugar Bill is heartening. It was after the ISPR released GHQ’s view of it that the media storm broke, regaling the nation with the endless advantages of “ghairat” over the core interests of the state, to clinch an argument no one in their right minds could understand. Mr Sharif’s decision to save democracy rather than the mystique of “ghairat” now sets the stage for a normal unfolding of the democratic process in Pakistan.
In fact, Mr Sharif’s constant refrain that all will be well if the Charter of Democracy is enforced by parliament signals his unease with the current activist judiciary because the COD envisages the ouster of all PCO judges regardless of which PCO oath they took. This is one point on which both Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari should agree.
The third development relates to the Transparency International report. While some interpret its opinion as an indictment of Mr Zardari, the report is sufficiently “balanced” to deflect the damnation. It attributes the rise in corruption to the increase in terrorism and poverty which is attributed to malgovernance during military rule. It also holds out a promise of improvement by next year because the judiciary and media are free to pursue corrupt individuals and practices. The undoing of the NRO is a measure of the good direction in which the country is headed, according to TI. Mr Zardari has claimed that the political obituaries being written about him by a coterie of media persons may be premature. But to ensure that all is not lost, Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif will have to cross the Rubicon together. Singly they will fail. Together they may be able to thwart the conspirators against democracy.