It’s not easy taking your problems one at a time when they refuse to get in line.
Something mysterious ails the country’s president. The opposition, inside and outside parliament, is calling for early elections, ostensibly to pre-empt an army takeover. The robes seem ready to bring their gavels crashing down on the government. The rightwing is standing with guns drawn, ready and aimed. Pakistan is fast losing friends in Washington. The outside world at large is tired of what it sees as Pakistan’s double game. And most worryingly, the boys in uniform are up to their tricks again.
Have things ever looked this bad for the Pakistan Peoples Party? Not in a long time. The most telling part of it all is that no two people, either in the party or among the talking heads watching from the sidelines, will give you the same answer to any question, whether it’s about what exactly is wrong with Zardari’s health, if the president with nine lives still has some cards left to play, and whether there is something significant about the timing of a confrontation that no side can foreseeably win.
Late Thursday morning, even as a Supreme Court judge tried to convince Husain Haqqani’s counsel that the institution she had apprehensions about – the army – was also seeking ‘due process of law’ by coming to the court, everyone was wondering: how long to the point of no return? And then the prime minister, the gift that just keeps on giving, broke the kettle and sank the boats. A fatal collision between the government and the army was in the offing, if it hadn’t already occurred.
Thundering away before a gathering at the Pakistan National Council of Arts, the prime minister warned that a conspiracy was being hatched to send an elected government packing but promised that it would live to fight another day.
And he didn’t stop there: he reminded the khakis, even if indirectly, that as the chief executive, all institutions of the state worked under the prime minister and all state officials got their salaries from the state exchequer. Sure, the army has sacrificed much in the war on terror but it was the elected government that had given it the mandate to fight that war in the first place and secured ownership of it from the people. No army can fight alone. The message was clear. And ominous.
And finally, the real insult: the Inquiry Commission on the Abbottabad Operation was formed to answer the basic question of what Osama had been doing in Pakistan all this time, the prime minister demanded. Why then was it now being used to ask the government how many visas it had issued and to whom?
When your beard is on fire, it’s a folly to ask for a match to light your smoke. And yet, that’s exactly what the prime minister has done. For all practical purposes, he’s told the khakis if they cross a limit, the government will ask all the questions it hasn’t so far touched.
If there was ever a point of no return, this looked like it. But the question no one has an answer to yet is: why?
What has brought both the government and the army to this terminus? What does one want that the other is unwilling to, or cannot, concede? Why can the two sides no longer agree to a compensation value? Why doesn’t either side see any point in negotiating any more? What has the army asked of the civilians that has made it prohibitively expensive, even impossible, for them to turn back?
After the boys got Haqqani’s scalp, most people expected things to settle down. But it is increasingly obvious now that the memo was just an excuse: that silly yet fatal mistake the army was waiting for the government to make so that it could go for the kill. So, what more does it want now?
Another extension for Shuja Pasha, some are asking? Maybe, but that doesn’t seem like a concession the government would sacrifice its term over. Zardari’s head? An interim set-up minus the president? Or does this have to do with the economy? That the government warned the army of economic ruin unless the Nato supply lines were reopened and the boys wouldn’t budge – not even if the civilians offered to work with them on national security issues in order to give political legitimacy to their agenda?
They say there is nothing in the world more stubborn than a corpse: you can hit it, you can knock it to pieces, but you cannot convince it. Does that explain the prime minister’s tone? What would he have to lose if he were convinced the game was already up? Was he just the silly cock crowing on his own dunghill? Or was it that between strengthening its armour and sacrificing itself or just limping forward on one leg and remaining alive, the PPP has finally made its choice? Remember how after the May 2 raid everyone criticised the government for missing the chance to show the public that the greatest threats to national security were in fact created and compounded by the army itself? Is the PPP seizing the moment now?
Perhaps, the turn of events is just the final culmination of the PPP’s larger political strategy that many warned was bound to reach its limit sooner rather than later. Zardari’s games worked with those who saw politics as a dhanda: the politicians who were amenable to, and could be incentivised with, inducements. But the strategy of sharing the spoils was ultimately going to prove inadequate with an army that considers itself above this game of give and take. That thinks it owns the game. Surrendering to it the national security and foreign policy domains would never have been enough. Ultimately, it would have wanted more. And perhaps now it does.
Those who argued that the army had its hands full and wasn’t interested in politics – especially not if the civilians got their act together – neither had their eyes on history nor their ears to the ground.
Will better sense prevail? Some would argue that for the PPP, it’s not the crisis it has to conquer now, but itself. Sometimes, if big enough, a crisis becomes your biggest asset. Rock bottom is good solid ground; a dead-end street just a place to turn around.
And then, say the optimists, Nawaz Sharif and PM Gilani are finally in touch again now, the army chief has gone off to the battle areas to show he’s not playing politics and the government is safer today than yesterday. Why be so glum?
But even if it may not be time for despair just yet, the army has to remember this: a real patriot is the fellow who gets a parking ticket and rejoices that the system works. Back off boys!
The writer is an assistant editor, The News. Email: [email protected]