If lost wars have been harbingers of political change in Pakistan, unprecedented and neglected natural disasters have also provoked social unrest and regime change.
Pakistan provoked the 1965 war with India over Kashmir. When General Ayub Khan sued for peace in Tashkent, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto exploited the public’s simmering displeasure, created the PPP, vowed to wage a thousand year war with India to reclaim national honour and launched a movement to overthrow his mentor. Regime change duly followed a couple of years later.
General Yahya Khan was riding the crest of popularity in 1970 when Cyclone Bhola hit East Pakistan. The apathy, neglect and incompetence of the “West Pakistani-Punjabi” administration in the wake of death and destruction – over 3 million people were displaced and hundreds of thousands died – provoked such bitter and large scale resentment that the Bengalis swept away all West-Pakistan allied parties and gave a thumping vote to the nationalist Awami League of Sheikh Mujeeb ur Rehman in the general elections that followed. That laid the stage for civil war, dismemberment and regime change in Pakistan in 1971.
In May 1999, Pakistan’s civil-military establishment embarked on an ill-fated adventure against India at Kargil. After the US bailed Pakistan out, distrust and acrimony followed between prime minister Nawaz Sharif and General Pervez Musharraf, over who was responsible for the debacle. In the event, General Musharraf hijacked the political system and exiled its top leaders for nearly ten years.
By this historical yardstick, are the worst floods in living memory, which have wrought death and destruction on an unprecedented scale, also fated to sweep away the Zardari regime whose lack of credibility and feeble relief efforts have exacerbated the peoples’ distress?
Certainly, there is no dearth of pundits predicting, even exhorting, regime change. The problem is that it is not just the Zardari regime that is being flogged. Politicians, as a generic category, including the Sharif government in the Punjab and the ANP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, are at the receiving end for being corrupt, incompetent, uncaring and selfish. The only institution to come out smelling of roses is the Pakistan army, whose chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, is all over the place in immaculate khaki, supervising high-profile relief efforts. Some people are therefore hankering for a return to military rule, security and stability over “unaffordable niceties” like elections, democracy and representation.
But Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif, despite their fumbling and stumbling, are no fools. They know where their party political interests diverge and where their political system interests converge. So their blame game has wisely subsided in the face of media hostility and General Kayani’s tally of Brownie points. But the road ahead is murky.
The enterprise of efficient and transparent rehabilitation and reconstruction on such a large scale is going to prove impossibly taxing for the besieged Zardari regime. The hawk-eyed media is constantly going to paint a dismal picture of negligence, corruption and leakages. Worse, if neutral experts should find that much of the death and destruction in the Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan could have been avoided by timely administrative intervention in the Punjab upstream at Taunsa Barrage, as alleged by some, all hell may break loose for the Sharifs as well.
If the necessary conditions for regime change are therefore present, more or less, in the developing situation, what might create the sufficient conditions to tilt the project over?
A contraction of the economy by 5-10 per cent this year, coupled with food shortages, inflation and epidemics, is predicted. In the face of inept political governments, this could compel General Kayani to initiate a more functional and stable political dispensation than the one at hand. The army wants to focus on winning the long term war against the Taliban. For this it needs a robust economy and efficient government shorn of politicking and squabbling. To achieve this end, it can either seize power via a coup or replace the current power wielders in government with a more honest, efficient and neutral lot.
But a coup can be ruled out. However much the free media may dislike and criticize the politicians, its fierce independence is predicated on a democratic system. Any honeymoon with a new lot of generals in bed with the Pentagon will not last long. Similarly, after their heroic struggle to restore the supremacy of the law, the bar and bench will not countenance any violation of the constitution.
The other option is that of contriving a “national government” made up of nominees of the army and judiciary apart from credible representatives of the mainstream political parties in parliament. This would entail ousting President Zardari by means of some Supreme Court judgment, nudging his ANP and MQM coalition partners to ditch him, and convincing Nawaz Sharif – the big hurdle – to give a vote of confidence to a neutral parliamentarian nominated by the army to head a national government of all stakeholders until elections in 2013.
Mr Zardari has survived a running political crisis for two years. Will his luck hold in the next two months? The natural disaster has stacked the cards in the hands of General Kayani, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. The game they play will have meaningful consequences for Pakistan.