Benazir Bhutto is desperately trying to put a brave face on the latest Mehrangate revelations. She says that the tapes were “concocted” as part of a new “London Plan” to destabilise her government.
It is true that the tapes were given to Mr Sharif courtesy Mir Afzal Khan, the former NWFP chief minister, and Hameed Asghar Kidwai, the former Mehran bank official who taped the conversations and is Mir Afzal’s guest in London. Both have a serious grudge against Ms Bhutto. Mir Sahib because he wasn’t made President or NWFP governor as a reward for helping Ms Bhutto oust Mr Sharif last year, and Mr Kidwai because Mr Sherpao didn’t deliver on his promises. But it is not true that the tapes are doctored, even if the transcripts provided by Mr Sharif may be selectively edited.
Clearly, the performance of our two premier politicians leaves much to be desired. Mr Sharif and his cronies (Jam Sadiq Ali, Muzaffar Shah and Ghulam Haider Wyne) threw away acres of prime state land to win friends and influence people. Ms Bhutto’s Sindh chief minister, Mr Abdullah Shah, is now bent upon denuding the KDA and the Sindh Land Utilisation Department of all their remaining assets. Mr Sharif squandered US$ 1 billion on the yellow-cab scam. Ms Bhutto’s green tractor scheme is designed for much the same purpose. Mr Sharif generously dipped into state-owned banks to build his financial empire. Ms Bhutto’s appointments of hand-picked cronies to key financial institutions smack of the same intentions. Mr Sharif and Mr Yunus Habib were such good friends that the latter gave away tons of money to the IJI to ensure that Ms Bhutto wouldn’t win the 1990 elections. Ms Bhutto and Mr Habib appear to have cemented the same sort of relationship now — Mr Sherpao has had the good fortune to become chief minister of NWFP with no small thanks to Mr Habib. There are other similarities too.
If Mr Sharif’s privatisation of the Muslim Commercial Bank raised eyebrows, similar suspicions have dogged Ms Bhutto’s privatisation of PTC. If Mr Sharif’s arrest of Ms Bhutto’s spouse demonstrated his vindictiveness, Ms Bhutto has done worse by arresting his aged father. If Ms Bhutto was seen to demean the office of the President by shouting “Go Baba Go” in parliament, Mr Sharif has gone one step further by provoking fisticuffs. If Ms Bhutto threatened long marches, Mr Sharif’s train marches haven’t lagged behind. If Mr Sharif’s brother aroused controversy by becoming larger than life, Ms Bhutto’s husband is now all over the place. And so on, ad nauseam. The real irony, of course, is that many of Mr Sharif’s most notorious advisors are now part of Ms Bhutto’s trusted cabal.
But there is one crucial difference between their ruling styles: Mr Sharif seldom aspired to take the high moral ground in government whereas Ms Bhutto has rarely tired of being self-righteous. Therefore, all other things being equal, her behaviour has added insult to our injured sensibilities.
Ms Bhutto’s accountability trials lack credibility because she is only targeting the opposition. To be convincing, such charity should begin at home. Her grandiose plans to attract foreign investment are up in the air. Without political stability in Pakistan, US investors are more likely to sink their capital in the Gulf of Mexico.
Benazir Bhutto’s advisors tell her there is nothing to worry about. Why? Because the President and the superior judiciary are on her side. Because PPP MNAs would never leave her in the lurch since they would be wiped out by Mr Sharif in a fresh election. Because a sitting government can always defeat a vote of no-confidence by a combination of tried and tested tips and tricks. The clinching argument apparently is that there is no possibility of any army intervention. Why? Because the Americans would never tolerate any transgression against democracy and because the alternative (Nawaz Sharif) is even less palatable to the generals than her.
We must offer a note of caution. Ms Bhutto’s party is seething with resentment. Many MNAs are restive. The Speaker and his deputy are sulking. Mr Farooq Leghari is under pressure to put some distance between the Presidency and the PM’s House. Most ominously, the army is no longer prepared to do her bidding in Karachi.
A far more important development could imperil both Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif. The West is increasingly coming round to the view that for many third world countries like Pakistan, democracy may be a luxury they cannot afford. The argument is that, in the face of a threat from radical Islam which feeds on the intellectual and material impoverishment of people, economic development and political stability should come first.
This critique of democracy hadn’t burgeoned into a compulsion last year when the third elections in five years were called. But it is certainly blowing in the wind today. Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif would be advised to count their chickens before they come home to roost.