Vacation Time

Written by S.G. Jilanee  •  Cover Stories  •  February 2011 PDF Print E-mail

Look at the plethora of problems. There are indeed, so many that it is difficult to decide which one to put at the top. There is even more than one running sore. The war in Afghanistan is going on unabated.  General David Petraeus, the supreme commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan-Pakistan (The International Security Assistance Force), is under pressure to show some magic results of the surge as yet another batch of about 1400 fresh marines is to take up position in February. They are planning to consolidate the “gains” achieved during the recent months albeit at the sacrifice of more men, and “preempt” expected Taliban attacks next spring.

Petraeus’s personal compulsions have made him impatient with Pakistan. Quoting U.S. officials the Washington Post in a recent report said that he “adopted a much tougher attitude toward General Kayani than his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal.” The U.S. wants Pakistan to launch a full-scale ground assault against Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda “safe havens” in North Waziristan.

But General Kayani is not one to budge. Vice-president Joe Biden visited Pakistan in early January. He met all the top brass, civil and military. The visit promised extending support to Pakistan “to help strengthen its economy, improve governance and security, and respond to its development needs.”

But economy and governance are the PPP’s two Achilles’ heels. The governance means to keep everybody who might pose a threat to the posts of the presidential throne in good humor. The lot includes not only the allies but even eternal rivals.

Lately, therefore, when the JUI (F) withdrew from the coalition, the prime minister made frantic efforts to win him back. When the MQM followed by withdrawing its ministers from the federal cabinet the PPP saw red. Ultimately, when the prime minister visited the MQM headquarters at Nine Zero and the president weighed in, the damage was controlled. The government acceded to MQM’s demand to withdraw the price hike on petrol and freeze the planned levy of GST. MQM in return agreed to continue sitting on the treasury benches though it would not send its ministers back, yet.

Yet, that was not all. When Nawaz Sharif gave a seventy-two hour time to the prime minister to accept some of his demands for “good governance,” Yusuf Raza Gilani went on his knees. As a result Sharif went soft. He denied that his 72-hour notice was an ultimatum. We don’t believe in giving ultimatum,” he said after the patch-up. Meanwhile he has set up a committee from his party to monitor the implementation of his demands by the government.

Meanwhile the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited in January. He met all the top brass, civil and military. The purpose is to extend support to Pakistan “to help strengthen its economy, improve governance and security, and respond to its development needs.” The United States is quite firm in its demand for improving the tax base. State Secretary Clinton therefore expressly deplored Gilani government back-pedaling on the GST.
The million dollar question is how economy can be improved when corruption has gone through the ceiling and oodles of money are siphoned off to line the pockets of the corrupt. Even Hajj, a most pious affair was the target of a mammoth scam this year. Pilgrims were milked dry. The minister in charge was dismissed. Even the name of the prime minister’s son is being mentioned among the beneficiaries of the loot. Government is now reimbursing the victims for what they had been cheated of. But, the Supreme Court Chief Justice expressed his displeasure with the way the CIA chief has been conducting the investigation in the case.

However, none of these is going to touch the president or his government. Skyrocketing prices of articles of daily use may distress the public. But, the government has cleverly stifled the voices that might clamor by its policy of appeasement and official bribery. The fragmented religious parties can ignite public passions on religious issues. But economy is not their cup of tea. They can bring out a rally of 50,000 to support Governor Salman Taseer’s assassin as a hero and demand his unconditional release. But they cannot gather 500 to protest against corruption or high prices or bad governance.

It is only the political parties that could have roused public anger on economic issues as they did on the RGST and petrol price hike. But political parties, from ANP, PML (F) and MQM to even the PML (N) which could play the role of an effective opposition, have been appeased or bought over. With all these parties in the government’s pocket, it can easily dismiss the PML (Q) and JUI (F). The rumbles about mid-term elections that were gaining pitch for so long, have therefore died totally. There is not even a whisper about it any more.

Salman Taseer’s murder has given a severe jolt to the government. He was a stout defender of the party and kept the PML (N) government in the Punjab on tenterhooks. He was murdered by one of his own guard. It is a tragedy. But that is all. His demise is by no means a critical loss to the party. Another governor has been appointed and this time because the appointment has won Nawaz Sharif’s prior approval, President Zardari can have a peaceful sleep.

Mr. Zardari knows the art of survival and how to live a happy life. He has therefore plugged all holes very carefully and sealed even the tiniest cracks. The results are obvious on all fronts. As example take the NRO case. It made waves when on 18 December a year ago, the Supreme Court, gave its verdict amidst a lot of fanfare nullifying the NRO. The whole country hailed the judgment.

With everybody, including even the president being treated as equal before the law and made to regurgitate their ill-gotten wealth, it was perceived that this epochal event that would herald a corruption-free government for the future. Additionally, the return of billions of dollars to the national exchequer could help the country tide over its financial crisis.

But all that is now a memory. The anniversary of the Supreme Court verdict passed off without anybody taking notice. The beneficiaries of the NRO are nonchalantly enjoying their gains and their new perks. And the country has as a consequence slid deeper into corruption.

Even Benazir’s murder mystery has, for all practical purposes been shelved, not solved. As Winston Churchill said, “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Mr. Zardari once said he knew who was behind Benazir’s murder. But he is not going to betray the assassin’s or conspirator’s trust by giving out his name, despite all the love he bore to the deceased.

There is no question that the foremost thing Mr. Zardari, would wish is security for his person and office and political strength for his party. He has achieved both. His present term is secure. He is now setting his sights beyond 2012 for another term. 

S. G. Jilanee is a senior political analyst and the former editor of Southasia Magazine.
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