By Shaheen Sehbai
ISLAMABAD: In a week of intense behind the scenes political and diplomatic activity in the federal capital, key new lines have been added to the so called ‘script’, the unofficial, unwritten roadmap drawn up and preserved in the minds of the concerned people, to get rid of the despicable grip on the country of a few powerful highly placed individuals and their friends.
After my meetings with most of the main stakeholders in the present system during the last few days, including top people sitting in the Presidency, the PM House, Senate, National Assembly, Raiwind, the highly charged drawing rooms of Islamabad and the excited corridors ruled by career bureaucrats, the broad contours of the script have become identifiable. This assessment will purely be an analysis and conclusions drawn up by a journalist, but it will have many elements which have either come directly from the people I have met or from circles associated intimately with the real wielders of powers, political and non-political. Even before I started writing these lines, some elements of the new script had started becoming visible publicly.
The key indicators now out in the open include the shocking debacle for PPP on the NRO; the somersault of the MQM to oppose the NRO; a direct demand by Mr Altaf Hussain asking President Zardari to resign; the extra confidence in Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to practically take over matters in his own hands; the emergence of Nawaz Sharif from his friendly opposition bunker; the significant stand taken by Fata MPs; the calm and cool but ever persuasive demeanour of the army chief to discuss “matters of national security” with the prime minister (not the president); the nervousness in some camps over the “messages and ideas” Lady Hillary Clinton has taken back to Washington; and the unusual multi-country tour of our ISI chief, starting with Saudi Arabia, which some government spokespersons hilariously described as a visit in which he had taken a message to the Saudi King from President Zardari.
In the previous script the role of the judiciary and the superior courts was well defined but before that stage could arrive the presidential edifice crumbled under the weight of just a couple of smart political moves by pro-establishment forces. So a calculated fine-tuning had to be done.
What has already happened is known but what is likely to come is more important. All stakeholders agree, and this I can claim after meeting almost all of them in the last few days in Islamabad and Lahore, that President Asif Ali Zardari will have to either step down with dignity, hand over his presidential powers to the PM through a fast-track constitutional amendments process, or become a figure head and stay within his bunker for as long as he does not create any nuisance.
Some apologists for the presidency have already publicly indicated that Mr Zardari is seriously thinking about this course because that would keep him in the top most position, immune to the unpleasant hardships of defending himself in civil courts, a process he has endured for years, and wait for his time to strike back as a relevant PPP leader, with the active aid and presence of son Bilawal and daughters Bakhtawar and Assefa.
This could be the easier way out for him but it involves humiliation and embarrassment on a daily basis as his cronies and confidants, those who do not get away from the country in time, will be dragged in cases and in the media, presenting before the entertained nation a spectacle which Mr Zardari would not like. They will be paying for their sins, of course.
So my analysis is that he will fight back. Some who still have access to him claim that he has expressed these defiant views many a time saying he would never resign and if someone wanted to remove him, he should send an ambulance because he would not walk out on his own two feet.
But this fighting spirit and belligerent posture, although part of his psyche and state of mind, will not be beneficial politically. It is almost certain, and a senior Sindhi politician who knows the PPP and Sindh like the back of his own right hand, openly admits, that for Zardari there would be no “Sindh Card”, as it was available to Benazir Bhutto.
In fact when I asked the Sindhi politician what may happen in Sindh, and the heart of PPP country, if Zardari and his 12 friends were removed from their offices, the answer was: “Only these 13 people will protest, no one else will.” He explained that there are no PPP cadres with fires in their belly left in the interior of Sindh who would rise for Zardari. There is a growing sense of hatred because the Zardari clan has taken over all what was loved by the Bhutto jiyalas. “If today Nawaz Sharif stages a public meeting in Larkana, the country will be surprised at the turnout,” the mainstream Sindhi politician belonging to the PPP told me.
So chances for Mr Zardari to rekindle his political fortunes, once he gives up his powers or if he resigns, are genuinely limited. The PPP would split into factions with the bulk going to a collective committee of PPP stalwarts, seniors and juniors who have remained, or have been kept, on the sidelines by the Zardari coterie. This will also bring the much-needed democracy and openness in the party, breaking the shackles of feudal hold.
This PPP committee, contours of which are already shaping up, have strong arguments to describe the Zardari-led PPP era, which started with the 2008 elections. These arguments start with the failures of Mr Zardari ever since he presented the will of Benazir Bhutto to the PPP CEC. All that the CEC members have done ever since is to take his decisions and policies with a pinch of bitter salt but have gone along because the party had won seats in the name of Benazir Bhutto and they had got a chance to rule after years of wilderness. The corrupt among the party made a mad rush to make money because they realized that this set up will not last long, hence the stigma of corruption not only stuck but intensified.
The Zardari era, the argument goes, consists of broken promises, colossal mistakes in assessing the mood of the people, taking decisions with arrogance, taking on the establishment and institutions which were needed to survive, taking gigantic U-turns when under pressure and smiling about them, claiming unabashedly as if it was a considered policy (like the restoration of judges, sacking and restoration of the Punjab government of PML-N, surrender on the Kerry Lugar Bill and eventually running away from the NRO).
Conversely, if it has been any sign for anyone to read, the PM has always been making politically correct statements, never making a commitment which he knew he would not be able to deliver and most importantly, he has received the “asheerbaad” (blessings) of those who matter on all critical junctures. This is no longer true for Mr Zardari.
So when the judges were to be restored, the Army Chief called on the PM to deliver the quiet message. When the March 15 decision was taken General Kayani called Aitzaz Ahsan to inform Nawaz Sharif. When the Supreme Court was about to give the initial short order on the PCO judges case, the meeting between General Kayani and Aitzaz Ahsan was considered necessary. When things were getting out of hand on the Kerry Lugar Bill, a similar meeting between Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar was held. The army chief also met the chief ministers of NWFP and Balochistan. When NRO erupted on the face of Mr Zardari, another meeting between the Army Chief and the PM was essential on Monday night so that the right message was conveyed. And it was. Then we saw the surrender.
These were domestic developments but the most important external factor which has now been added to the miseries of the presidency is the conclusion Hillary Clinton is believed to have drawn after her eye-opening three-day visit to Pakistan. She was actually on a fact-finding mission as the diplomatic channels in Pakistan and Washington had never informed her about the real situation. When the KLB exploded, State Department was taken aback and when Hillary saw with her own eyes and heard the people, her entire perceptions changed. Her almost three-hour meeting with General Kayani may have sealed many fates.
A shift in Washington’s policy, statements and emphasis would now be expected. She already took pains to ensure that none of her public and private utterances gave the impression that she was supporting any particular individual or any particular coalition government. She talked about the process of democracy and the people of Pakistan and that means faces can change but the Pak-US ties will stay.
The scriptwriters interpret this as a signal that Washington is no longer interested in protecting or prolonging Mr Zardari’s rule, if the people of Pakistan do not so wish. An official in the presidency quietly whispered in my ear that Mr Zardari has reached the point in just one year which General Musharraf took eight years to reach, vis-‡-vis the American support. “It is now for him to survive, the Americans have pulled the rug.”
On the domestic front again, the focus and all eyes would soon shift to the PM House where an hitherto out-shadowed PM was trying to cope and survive. Now the responsibility of making and owning all decisions would be his. Delivering results people expect from a sovereign parliament and a powerful PM under the amended constitution will be an onerous burden on Mr Yusuf Raza Gilani.
My interactions with a broad spectrum of important people reveal that Mr Gilani has not yet prepared himself to shoulder this responsibility. His administrative team is pretty weak and there is a growing sense of disconnect between the people around Mr Gilani and the rest of the top echelons of bureaucracy.
A senior bureaucrat told me the recent mass scale reshuffle in the officialdom by PM Gilani has made many officials nervous. They do not have direct and free access to the PM and a coterie of sorts is also beginning to surround the PM, like the one around the president. But this group is of professionals and civil servants who want to keep the PM under their thumb. It would be a big challenge for Mr Gilani to get a competent and effective team if he were to take charge and show the difference to the nation between a powerful PM and a one-man show which went wrong. He would have to sack high profile ministers, change cronies controlling the state organizations like the Pakistan Steel Mills, PSO, PIA, KESC and many others tainted with corruption.