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Pakistan changing tack

Publication Date : 17-08-2012


The Zardari government in Pakistan seems to have emerged from brainstorming with a more nuanced strategy that it hopes will place it on a more advantageous perch, both domestically and internationally.

One major prong of this seems to be to make peace with India, as a policy and not as an ad hoc, knee jerk reaction. The signal seems to have gone down the line with former Inter-Services Intelligence officials, diplomats, retired army generals and others all openly advocating peace and dialogue with no real "ifs" and "buts" being attached this time around.

Those who always preceded the possibility of talks with a “Kashmir being the core issue” argument are now insisting that dialogue is the only way to peace, and both countries should work together to ensure all-round stability and peace. In fact, the so-called peaceniks suddenly find their constituency having grown, with many they considered warmongers now talking the language of brotherhood and peace.

This is clearly in response to a message from the top that is perceived, at least in Pakistan, to have made "peace with India" the fulcrum of its new policy. No one can say how long this will last, but it does seem to be the new flavour with Pakistani politicians giving it a huge boost.

The second prong is to strengthen the supremacy of the legislature.

This is to counter an aggressive judiciary that has made it clear to Pakistan and its government that it cannot be messed around with.

After tasting blood with the dismissal of one prime minister who did not follow its directive on the assets of the president, it has raised the sword once again against the incumbent. There is every likelihood of his being axed as well, leading Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan to observe that the government was prepared for this, and would keep appointing new prime ministers until elections were held.

The Pakistan government has decided not to confront the judiciary directly, or get into a brawling match that it knows will work against its interests. So judging from the responses on the ground, it seems that the decision is to work for the unity of the legislature at all levels to marginalise the impact of the current phase of judicial activism. This has worked to a great extent with legislators united in re-asserting the supremacy of the legislature against a judiciary that they feel has transgressed its constitutional authority.

Punjab Governor Sardar Latif Khosa, who is also a lawyer and a leader of the PPP, was clear in an interaction that the government respected the judiciary, would do nothing to erode its authority but went on to speak of a united legislature on issues of constitutional importance.

The third prong is to act with new determination against terrorism.

Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani made it clear in a sense that terrorism is a Pakistani problem and has to have a Pakistani solution, a fact recognised in an editorial by the newspaper Dawn.

The reaction to the speech was not hostile amongst the people in Lahore, many of whom said it was necessary to get rid of militancy for once and all. Perhaps General Kayani’s speech was in recognition of this growing anti-terrorism sentiment as he went on to assert “the fight against extremism and terrorism is our own war and we are right in fighting it. Let there be no doubt about it, otherwise we will be divided and taken towards civil war. Our minds should be clear on this.”

Of course, much of the success of these words and this policy will depend on the Army and government’s ability to convince the people that they are countering terrorism of their own volition, and not at the behest of Americans.

Relations between the USA and the people of Pakistan remain tenuous, with the Pakistan government grappling with growing animosity on this front. Civil society members who routinely spent summers in Washington have joined the ranks of the anti-USA lobby in Pakistan, with young Pakistanis returning to their homes in large numbers. A young journalist who has just returned after two years in the US said: “There are no jobs there for us now, we also do not want to stay there, but the problem is that because so many are coming back, there is a glut here as well.”

Drone attacks continue to be a major irritant, and while there has been some easing of tension in recent weeks between the two governments, relations still remain stretched and fragile. The Zardari government is being shackled by overwhelming public opinion on this front and can at best move ahead slowly to mend fences. All spoken to agreed that any sudden moves to increase cooperation at this stage would lead to a major reaction from the people, including PPP supporters.

Elections are around the corner but after 2012 began with doomsday predictions of mid-term polls, it does seem that midway into the year President Zardari and his team have managed to avert the crisis.

Opposition leaders admit that the elections will now be on time. Labour party’s Farooq Tariq said that an early election now was highly unlikely and would be held as per schedule. Interestingly, the PPP is also looking to make peace with all political parties with a determined eye on a post-poll coalition. It has decided to follow, for instance, a “democratic” procedure to install a caretaker Prime Minister for the period of elections and Sardar Khosa was categorical that his party would not try to foist its own choice on the rest.

The PPP will consult all political parties for a consensus candidate, with the list including Imran Khan’s Tehreeq-e-Insaaf even though it is not represented in the legislature. This is clearly to build bridges as Imran Khan has been drawing the crowds and is expected to do substantially well in the general elections. The assessment now is that he will cut into Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party in the Punjab and could emerge as the ‘king maker’ in the process. The PPP has decided to keep all options open to keep itself in power after the polls.

The writer is consulting editor of The Statesman


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