An advice to Asif Zardari: Respect the parliamentary system and the rule of law….Hamid Mir / Shafqat Mahmood

Power brooks no competition

Reality check

Friday, January 16, 2009
by Shafqat Mahmood

An immutable law governing power is that it cannot be shared. When arrangements for sharing it are made, one party may appear to be docile and incapable of creating a problem. But the dynamics of the situation are such that even the gentlest of souls starts to get agitated.

It begins with family and friends complaining about being belittled. They ask this or that official to do something and it is not done. Then the staff of the weaker party starts to show its frustration because it does not like being ignored. Basically, it has a hard time coming to terms with the inferior status of its boss.

Initially, the person exalted to high office is so grateful to his benefactor that he tries to keep the complaints of people around him in check. He is quite happy to enjoy the perks of office and the paraphernalia that comes with it but this does not last. It is amazing how quickly a person can become used to sirens, security, free run on the roads, beautiful and comfortable surroundings, limousines and private aircraft. The desire for real power starts to trump all this glitz and glamour.

The bureaucracy’s role in heightening frustration among the weaker party is also critical. It has a finely tuned sensitivity to where the power really lies and if confronted with a choice, starts to ignore orders coming from the weaker but legitimate source of authority. This turns out to be a very difficult pill to swallow for the less powerful office holder. He starts to get self-righteous about how he is the fount of authority and if his orders are being ignored, it virtually amounts to a slap on his face etc. This keeps building up and ultimately reaches a point of recklessness. This is when direct confrontation starts.

The media also plays a critical role. It sees as clearly as the bureaucracy where the real power lies and perhaps unintentionally starts to belittle the weaker party. He is called all kinds of names, from being ineffectual to an outright dummy. No one wants to wake up in the morning to read this day in and day out.

Given these dynamics, it has comes as no surprise that Zardari and Gilani have begun to feud. Gilani had asserted himself a few times earlier but it went unnoticed. The establishment secretary was sacked a few months ago after he had apparently implemented the Presidency orders on a particular posting ignoring the prime minister’s wishes. There may have been other minor battles that we are unaware of. If Prime Minister Gilani was waiting for an opportunity to assert his authority more publicly, he could not have found a better target than retired General Durrani. This gentleman has been a controversial figure for some time. Dictator Ziaul Haq’s family implicitly held him responsible for his death in the air crash because he was the division commander who had invited him to view a tank demonstration. In recent years, he has widely been seen, largely by his former military colleagues, as America’s man. General Beg’s tirades against him are something to behold.

I will not call anyone’s patriotism into question and there is no reason to believe that Durrani did not have Pakistan’s interest at heart in his dealings. But, because of these misgivings about him in military circles, which had also been picked up by a section of the media, he was as good a target as any for Gilani to make an example of. And, since he was exceptionally close to Zardari, there was no better vehicle to upstage the President. Gilani did his homework well.

Where do we go from here? Will this lead to a serious rift in the party? Does Gilani have the gumption to take on Zardari if he tries to move against him? These are important questions and the answer to them will determine how our politics unfolds over the next year.

The differences between the two have been papered over because Zardari has apparently swallowed Durrani’s sacking. He has not forgiven him and wont but he will bide his time. He will wait until he has done the necessary ground work and this may take a few months. Besides, the Senate elections are due and he will not upset the power arrangement until he has been able to secure a majority for the PPP and place his choice as chairman of the Senate.

The necessary ground work that President Zardari has to do is within the National Assembly. The Pakistan People’s Party does not even have a simple majority and has been able to form the government with the help of allies. Any revolt in the party is a sure recipe for losing power.

Can Prime Minister Gilani create a revolt if push comes to shove? I have my doubts and for two reasons. While Zardari only commands limited personal loyalty in the party, he can manipulate the levers of power. If it becomes apparent that Gilani may be on his way out, other contenders would start lining up to vie for his job. This would give Zardari the opportunity to regain control of the party. He will make promises, dangle cabinet positions etc and undermine any support Gilani may have.

Having said that, there is disgruntlement within the party that Gillani could exploit and he may have at least some who are personally grateful to him for cabinet positions or other favours. The problem is that he has no real power base in the party and with his possible departure in the air, his position would be further undermined. It is this that makes me think that he is not in a position to create any serious revolt in the parliamentary party.

Any move to oust him though will create uncomfortable moments if the allies do not fully back President Zardari. This means he has to get the ANP, JUI-F, MQM and independents fully on board. This may take some doing. It is no surprise then that he has started to make serious moves towards the PML-Q. It is not just for the big prize in the Punjab. He wants to cover his flanks in the National Assembly and the Senate.

The sad thing is that these tensions in the corridors of power come at a difficult time for the country. Not only are the president and the prime minister feuding, our armed forces and intelligence agencies are being specifically targeted by the west. Then, most foreign agencies are pointing fingers at LeT for the Mumbai tragedy.

One does not know which way our investigations are going, but the possibility of finding evidence of LeT’s involvement cannot be ruled out. If it does happen, the government will be holding a very hot potato in its hand. If no evidence is found, the world will accuse us of fudging evidence or deliberately covering up. There are no easy choices.

Any political turmoil at this stage will create a problem and undermine any effort to project a united front to the world. However, pious intentions and appeals to patriotism don’t change the dynamics of politics and power. Rocky times are ahead. (The News)