At first it was rumoured that the State Bank of Pakistan had dishonoured treasury cheques because the government was bankrupt. Then there was a mad rush to withdraw foreign exchange deposits because it was feared that the government might freeze Forex accounts. This was followed by the unseemly sight of the richy-rich tripping over each other to empty their lockers because, so the rumour went, some federal minister’s family members had been spotted scurrying away with their loot from some locker. All this, despite firm statements at every stage by the prime minister, finance advisor and commerce minister that such actions were inconceivable. The irony was that the stock market plummeted the very day the good news was announced in Washington that Pakistan had renegotiated a package of fiscal and monetary measures with the IMF whereby the latter had pledged US$ 600 million in the next fifteen months to help Pakistan out of its transitional difficulties.
Last Sunday the top dogs of the Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad Stock Exchanges expressed satisfaction following a meeting with the PM. Well and good, we thought, perhaps we can now bury the mad speculations which have gripped the country and driven everyone insane. Unfortunately, however, this feeling dissipated when the Lahore Stock Exchange was invaded by the ‘strong’ rumour that martial law had been imposed! When this didn’t come true, rumour-mongers put it out that behind President Leghari’s reported back trouble, which kept him away from the public eye for a couple of days, was “a fresh dispute with the prime minister over the appointment of the next army chief”!
What the hell is going on?
Ms Tehmina Daultana, the PML (N) wonderwoman, spoke in Parliament last Sunday as though this was going to be its last sitting. And Mian Nawaz Sharif has been rabble rousing all over the country with declarations that the Bhutto government is on its way out. Some analysts have even gone so far as to allege that the simmering revolt within the PPP (against the inclusion of a coterie of corrupt PPP MPAs into the Punjab cabinet) is at the behest of President Leghari!
What the hell is going on?
We know that the business community abhors the Bhutto government and would love to see the back of it. We know that the urban middle classes share this sentiment because they are up to their eyeballs with inflation. We know that the mullahs are readying for a jihad against Ms Bhutto’s moderate regime. And we know that the opposition would give an arm and a leg to get rid of their nemesis in Islamabad. The recent attempt at a coup, however foolhardy, also suggests that there may be some disgruntlement within the ranks against both the government in Islamabad and the present army leadership in Rawalpindi. In view of this brewing explosive concoction, is it surprising that the government seems to be in a state of siege? If wishes were horses, the men on horseback would be galloping all over the place by now.
If we were to pause and think, we might say that the fault, dear Benazir, lies not in your stars but in your government. You have condoned corruption and incompetence in the highest echelons of government and your economic policies are inconsistent and contradictory. Having failed to sow confidence amongst the people, you are reaping the whirlwind of fear and mistrust.
Behind the widespread mood of despair, suspicion and disbelief, however, lies one crucial factor — the appointment of the next army chief. Everyone wants to know why, but why, has the announcement been postponed to this late stage? Q: “Why is Ms Bhutto desperate to give General Waheed an extension?” A: “Because she thinks he may be partial towards her government!” Q: “If General Waheed doesn’t want the extension, why has he restrained the government from announcing his successor?” A: “Because he may be planning a last-minute exercise by Brigade 111!” Q: “Who will be the next army chief?” A: “General X because his views coincide with those of the ruling party or General Y because the PM has a soft spot for him!” And so it goes. Every day brings a wave of fresh doomsday theories. This uncertain situation is tailor-made to provoke the most sensational or ridiculous speculation and doubt.
Appointments to the army high command are of crucial importance to Pakistani state and society. It is no wonder that the entire country is in a state of uncertainty because of the delay in this announcement. The constitution is clear on the prerogative of the President to appoint the COAS. So while the blame for the delay which has led to this sorry state of affairs is shared by all three members of the troika, the onus for its resolution lies squarely with the President. The “problem” has been tactlessly contrived, its resolution has been unnecessarily delayed and the next incumbent has been kept dangling. It is time to put the national interest above personal considerations.