Just as the Peoples Party had completed a stunning transformation from its long-running anti-establishment persona to the one seen as a defender of the status quo, comes an equally astonishing act of self-annihilation which turns the domestic political scene upside down.
Until the bombshell dropped by Mansoor Ijaz in his op-ed piece in the Financial Times last month, PPP was seen to be sitting pretty as the lead partner of the leading political alliance of the country. It was not the PPP but the PML(N), especially Nawaz Sharif himself, who was seen to be on the wrong side of the security establishment given his principled stand against military’s traditional role in the political arena. Despite his strong dislike of Zardari, who seemed to betray his trust at every turn, Nawaz Sharif had to indirectly defend him as part of his “let’s-follow-the-Charter-of-Democracy” mantra. With his peace overtures to India, or at least Indians, and statements such as the one on the occasion of All Parties Conference in which he asserted that there must be something amiss if the world keeps pointing its finger at us, Nawaz Sharif was seen as a man who refused to rebuild the bridges to the GHQ burnt a decade earlier.
The PPP was further being seen as a significant if collateral beneficiary of the rise in popularity of Imran Khan in the Punjabi heartland hitherto controlled by PML(N). That Imran Khan, widely deemed to have the backing of the security establishment, was concentrating his efforts against PML(N) in Punjab was taken to mean that Rawalpindi was not prepared to see the PML(N) form the next government at the Centre. With Imran Khan not likely to be able to form the government without collaborating with one of the two big parties, many viewed PPP as the party which could be realistically expected to lead the next Federal government in 2013.
This state of affairs represented a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes and image of a Party which was born out of populist anti-establishment politics of the late 1960s and had never shed its “outsider” image since then.
Remarkably, however, in the last couple of post-Benazir years, the juxtaposition of a hyper-pragmatic Zardari and an un-compromising Nawaz Sharif had led to the emergence of the view in the establishment, with some goading from the US, no doubt, that Zardari-led PPP was a safer bet than the presumably less compromising PML(N). For its part, Zardari and the PPP seemed to be acting on a one-point agenda – completing five years in power. The extension offered to the Chief of the Army Staff appeared to be part of the Zardari-Gilani setup’s determined effort to avoid the fate of the four Benazir and Nawaz Sharif governments whose lives were cut short in the 1990s.
If staying in government meant handing out ministries to the opposition PML(N), alternatively appeasing and arm-twisting MQM, making up with the PML(Q) – famously dubbed “Qatil League” by Zardari himself – or doling out favours to people like Fazal-ur-Rehman, then so be it. More importantly, the PPP had no qualms about giving the military a completely free hand in running the foreign policy as well as the domestic security policy.
How then did we end up with Memogate? The answer appears to lie in the ambition of one person: Zardari’s (erstwhile) man in Washington, Mr Hussain Haqqani. Today Mr Haqqani is busy tweeting trying to garner sympathies of his DC acquaintances as a democracy-loving liberal friend-of-the-US who had to sacrifice his position for standing up for civilian supremacy. Perhaps Mr Haqqani really is a born-again secular democrat but surely there is more to the talented Mr Haqqani than his present self-righteous declarations would suggest.
Far from the anti-establishment figure he is trying to cut today, Mr Haqqani has always been on the right side of the establishment, starting from his days in the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba – the militant student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Mr Haqqani was reportedly thick with the ISI during Zia’s time and marketed himself as Nawaz Sharif’s high profiled right hand man in the latter’s virulently anti-PPP days in the 1980s and the early 1990s.
Never far from the centre of present or future power, Haqqani served as the Press Secretary to Prime Ministers Balakh Sher Mazari and Jatoi and became very close to Benazir. He served as Ambassador both under Nawaz Sharif as well as under Zardari – being very close to each at the time of their being in power. He appeared to have the talent to match his ambition – until this cockamamie memo business blew up in his face. As much as Zardari might have wanted to lighten up the military’s traditional overbearing presence, surely he was too smart to take a chance with the notoriously fickle Americans, and would never authorise anything in writing in this age of WikiLeaks.
Even if, contrary to all the allegations flying around, Zardari indeed did not have anything to do with this absurd scheme, he and the party will have to pay a price for the follies of his friends. In a flash, revelations regarding the memo have led to a complete reversal of the PPP-establishment equation, with the erstwhile defensive military now holding the high moral ground and the Peoples Party back in the dock as the outfit not to be trusted with the country’s secrets and sovereignty. Time will tell whether this fiasco will indeed prove to be the game changer the establishment had been waiting for, or whether Zardari will survive yet again with the episode costing him no more than another of his nine lives.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]