On the eve of the Supreme Court’s verdict warning the government “to sort out Karachi before it is too late”, the MQM is back in the folds -until the next time it leaves again to strike another bargain.
The PML(Q)’s estrangement with the government also proved to be short-lived. The Chaudhrys had asked for a meeting with the president to air their real or perceived grievances. But ostensibly they were in such haste that a brief telecon with the president sufficed to bring them squarely back in the fold.
Such are the vagaries of politics that a government which seemed vulnerable and precariously poised in terms of its majority in the parliament just a day ago has come out on top of things. Nawaz Sharif’s ill-timed and poorly planned long march against the government on loadshedding and the leader of the opposition Chaudary Nisar’s dharna in front of the presidency, both proved to be a damp squib.
Nawaz, as if resigned to his present state of inertia, while addressing a press conference in Nawabshah has admitted that he is not as wily and street-smart as his opponents. Sharif and his brother who is the chief minister of the largest province do not seem to have a coherent strategy and are simply reacting to events.
On a given day, the party is all set to play the Punjab card with Shahbaz Sharif and his minions crying hoarse that a deliberate loadshedding policy is being pursued against Punjab. He reacts angrily to not being provided a helicopter by the federal government and bitterly declares that he does not recognise Zardari as president despite being part of the federation as the Chief Minister of Punjab.
The very next day, Mian Nawaz Sharif gives the opposite signal by embarking on a visit to Sindh. In one breath, he says that his party could be part of the coalition provided the government comes up with solutions to the country’s problems. However, he declares in the same speech that if the present government remains in power any longer, it will be disastrous for the country.
Does this mean that Zardari the ‘Teflon president’ – to whom no criticism seems to stick – is laughing all the way to the bank and has nothing to fear from the opposition? On one level, this seems true. The PPP and its coalition partners are certain to win a comfortable majority in the Senate elections due March next year. Both the MQM and the PML(Q) are poised to improve their standing by piggybacking with the PPP and therefore have a stake in sticking together.
Despite favourably poised to meet its first major goal post before the general elections, Zardari faces monumental challenges – both external and internal. The Supreme Court’s verdict on targeted killings in Karachi is a strong denouncement of his government.
The apex court has criticised both the federal and the provincial government for their failure to ensure peaceful economic activity in the grand metropolis. By observing that violence in the city is not ethnic alone but also a turf war between different political groups, it has put the government on notice.
The court has named all three major players in Karachi, the PPP, the MQM and the ANP, for engaging in extortion and other criminal activities in Karachi. Based on the evidence presented before the court, parties that espouse Islam as the basis of their politics (the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Sunni Tehrik) are also included in the list.
Although the Court was presented with evidence that MQM terrorists like Ajmal Pahari received training in India, the Chief Justice put the onus on the government to move a reference for banning parties engaged in terrorism, declaring that it was not in the domain of the Supreme Court to ban parties.
It is obvious that the ball is squarely in Zardari’s court with regards to sorting out the mess in Karachi. But charity begins at home. Is he willing to bite the bullet by reining in and bringing to book criminal elements within his own party?
The president will have to sit with his coalition partners, incidentally always at each other’s throats, to bring a modicum of peace in Karachi. They should be made to agree to a just and equitable demarcation of constituencies free of gerrymandering, as observed by the apex court. A similar exercise will be needed to make the city free of weapons as much as possible and to depoliticise the police.
On the economic front, the present respite in loadshedding could prove to be ephemeral unless the thorny issue of circular debt is resolved. The government is paying Rs 20 billion a month in power subsidies. Without reforms, no international agency will be willing to lend us money.
The tax-to-GDP ratio, abysmally low at 8.8 per cent, needs to be doubled at least. Otherwise, no government worth its salt can meet its expenses. The assemblies dominated by vested interests across the board are unwilling to legislate such a change. And with elections not far away, it is like asking for the moon.
The external environment around Pakistan continues to deteriorate at a fast rate. India and Afghanistan signing a strategic partnership agreement during Karzai’s recent visit to New Delhi has sent jitters all the way through our ubiquitous establishment. So much so that General Kayani (while meticulously avoiding to criticise India) has chosen to warn Afghanistan of the consequences of blaming the ISI.
During the past month, the US security and defence establishment has been consistently singling out the Pakistani military and the ISI for backing the Haqqani Network. Now President Obama has joined the chorus by accusing Islamabad of hedging its bets on Afghanistan’s future. Alleging that there were “connections between the intelligence services and extremists”, he has advised Pakistan that “a peaceful approach towards India is in everybody’s interest.”
Alarmists and naysayers in Pakistan will obviously point to a budding nexus between Washington, New Delhi and Kabul against Islamabad. This will provide more grist to the propaganda mills of hawks within the establishment and the media.
Nonetheless, it is symptomatic of our complete isolation regionally as well as on a global level. Deep introspection is needed amongst our security apparatus and our foreign policy mandarins. There is need to outgrow our ostrich-like approach and have a thorough reality check. The litany of being the victim no longer cuts the ice. The sooner we realise it, the better for us.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today