The increased role of the intelligence agencies, especially the ISI and the MI, in the political domain from the mid-1980s onwards caused distortions in politics and made it easy to float speculative reports about civilian political leaders
An interesting feature of civilian rule in Pakistan is that within a year or so of the establishment of a civilian government, speculative reports abound about its collapse or removal. The media publishes stories about corruption, mismanagement, infighting in the government, estrangement of the top brass of the military or the shifting priorities of the West, especially the US. Such speculative reports get updated periodically on the deadline for the removal of the government.
Such speculations were quite common during 1988-1999 when the weak and divided civilian governments were subjected to extra-parliamentary pressures. Three governments were removed by the president with the blessings of the army chief (1990, 1993 and 1996). The fourth civilian government was removed by the army top brass in a military takeover in October 1999.
It is noteworthy that such reports do not see much role for parliament for changing the government. In the case of 1988-1999, only one unsuccessful vote of no-confidence was moved against the Benazir Bhutto government in1989. However, even in this case the role of the intelligence agencies was conspicuous in swaying parliamentarians against the government.
The post-2008 election civilian political arrangements are in the second year. For the last six months or so there have been ample stories in circulation in the political circles and echoed by the media that the days are numbered for the PPP-led federal government, or at least for President Asif Ali Zardari. Some deadlines for this possible development have passed but the interested political circles have not given up hope for a change to their satisfaction.
Such scenario making does not envisage any role for parliament in political change. The authors of these scenarios either talk about the role of the top brass of the military or the superior judiciary for the removal of some key personalities in the government or the whole government. Now the attention is focused on the Supreme Court with the hope that it might declare the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) as completely unconstitutional, making it impossible for President Zardari and a number of senior members of the government to continue in office. The shadows of some intelligence agencies can be seen in the selective campaign against corruption.
These stories are quite popular amongst those interested in politics mainly because there have been few instances of constitutional and normal transfer of power. In the pre-1958 period, the governor general/president manipulated politics with the backing of the top bureaucracy and the military. The military dominated politics directly and indirectly during 1958-1971, 1977-88 and 1999-2008. With the exception of the years 1972-1977, civilian governments invariably found themselves under siege from both the political opposition and the military.
The increased role of the intelligence agencies, especially the ISI and the MI, in the political domain from the mid-1980s onwards caused distortions in politics and made it easy to float speculative reports about civilian political leaders. Another development that contributed to this trend was the highly partisan and narrow perspective of the political leaders who did not mind going to any extent to pull down their political adversary. They never ruled out the use of extra-parliamentary methods, including hobnobbing with the intelligence agencies, for delegitimising the civilian government. They would not mind propagating any story as long as it targeted their political adversary.
The civilian government’s failings in governance and transparency in using discretionary powers gives rise to speculative stories about moneymaking activities and nepotism. Further, some sections of the media also develop political partisanship and engage in propaganda against some political leaders or the government without critically examining the information provided to them by some ‘interested parties’ or the intelligence agencies. The availability of the internet and especially e-mail facility has made it easy to circulate such stories.
Therefore, it is not difficult to run speculative stories or explain politics with reference to various kinds of national and international conspiracies.
The current PPP-led federal government and especially President Asif Ali Zardari are faced with a host of speculative and conspiracy stories. The denial of such stories does not always work.
These problems can be addressed mainly by cultivating working relations with the political opposition rather than attempting to outmanoeuvre them on every issue, improving governance, and ensuring transparency pertaining to the issues related to state funds and discretionary powers.
President Asif Ali Zardari was elected in September 2008 with a comfortable majority and a lot of political goodwill, but he lost the political advantage by an ill-advised strategy of playing ‘tough’ with the PML-N and refusing to honour political commitments. He promised to amend the constitution and reduce his discretionary powers in his first address to the joint session of parliament. Over one year later, this matter is still pending. Similarly, overconfidence in one’s political acumen led Zardari to encourage the Punjab Governor to work towards dislodging the Punjab government. The imposition of Governor’s rule in Punjab in February 2009 and refusal to reinstate the Chief Justice and some judges backfired. These policies had to be reversed under political and military pressure.
Political leaders need to seek strength from the political domain through as normal as possible interaction with the opposition political parties and strengthening the relationship of the leadership with the rank and file in one’s party. There are well-known alienated leaders in the PPP who express strong reservations on political management by the president’s advisors. With the exception of Farhatullah Babar, they have little personal goodwill inside and outside the PPP.
Two issues have been a source of major propaganda against the government. These were the text of some provisions of the Kerry-Lugar Act and the NRO. The government spokesmen found it difficult to put up a convincing defence.
Had the Presidency maintained a pleasant working relationship with the opposition, especially the PML-N, it would not have faced such a difficult situation on the Kerry-Lugar Act and the NRO. It also needs to make a dispassionate analysis why the MQM ditched the government on the NRO and the ANP and the JUI-F shied away from openly supporting the government on this issue.
The other matters that require urgent attention on the part of the PPP if it wants to cope with the post-NRO political situation include the oversized federal cabinet and its failure to address the economic issues that cause hardships to the common people. The sugar issue is the latest example on how the government is helpless in dealing with powerful political and economic cartels. Nobody from the federal and provincial governments is prepared to explain the management of the sugar crisis.
Political goodwill and political linkages are the assets of political leaders. In the case of the current federal government, it should seek strength through the PPP and an improved interaction with the opposition. These strategies will help the government to cope with difficult political and economic situations and deflect the pressures generated by the military and the bureaucracy. It is on these counts that the PPP government, especially the presidency, is faltering.
The government needs to return to the PPP by strengthening its relationship with party leaders and activists and making political gestures towards the opposition by going ahead immediately with the agreed constitutional and political changes.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst.