Pakistan Panorama: Zardari’s weapon of distraction
THE leader of Pakistan’s main ruling party, Asif Ali Zardari, is a man for the long haul. He has given ample demonstration of this since the tragic assassination of his more famous spouse, Benazir Bhutto, last December propelled him to the centrestage.
However, in his endeavour to get a firm grip on power, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader’s production of a 62-point constitutional package has, predictably, not been seen for the rabbit pulled out of a hat that would solve the country’s judicial jigsaw.
The hefty manuscript will likely test the patience of Pakistanis, who had voted in large numbers last February to rid themselves of Musharraf’s rule. The point of debate here is not that the proposed package seems to have a rather obtuse makeup with 62 points but the motive behind the exercise.
As one observer put it: “Zardari may like to think he is acting smart by trying to buy time and push his luck with the real issue – restoration of the deposed judiciary – but this is not the Pakistan of the Nineties where he could get away with convoluted ideas”.
The PPP leader launched what seems like a calculated attack on the crumbling edifice of the former military strongman by referring to him as a” relic of the past” in an interview with the Press Trust of India. The statement had the desired effect as it was warmly welcomed across the country.
But the subsequent announcement of a controversial constitutional package poured cold water over the apparent change-of-heart on the part of Zardari because, for months, democratic forces in Pakistan have wallowed in anguish at the PPP’s penchant for playing footsie with the beleaguered Musharraf.
In particular, disgruntled voters are incensed at how the only party with roots in all the four provinces and a torchbearer of the federation is so removed from the very cause that, according to a Gallop survey, 81 percent of Pakistanis hold dear to their heart: the restoration of deposed judiciary.
Contrary to its claims, the PPP was a major missing link in the historic struggle for the independence of the judiciary. Only Aitzaz Ahsan from the PPP has been in the vanguard but then, that is exactly what has led to his estrangement from the party.
Even in Benazir’s time, the cracks had widened to the extent that she was not on talking terms with Ahsan for months on end and when finally, the ice broke, she is reported to have tersely asked him “if you would be willing to drive me around like you do (deposed chief justice) Iftikhar Chaudhry?”
Ahsan was a permanent presence in the driving seat at the peak of a lawyers movement for Chaudhry’s restoration last year. But to return to Zardari’s stunning attack on Musharraf and the subsequent 62-point constitutional package, it all seems very calculated. For one, it was timed with the crucial Central Executive Committee of the PPP, where Zardari was expected to cop flak for playing those familiar footsie rounds, which has led to a rapid decline in the his party’s
After twice failing to meet the deadline on the restoration of judiciary, Zardari had to come up with a plan to both retrieve the party’s sagging fortunes and also keep its critical alliance with Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz intact in order to have a fair shot at removing Musharraf, if push ever came to shove.
However, the attempt to kill two birds with one stone – remove the impression that the PPP was hand-in-glove with the Establishment at the behest of Musharraf as well as strike a chord with a disenchanted public – is being seen as a smokescreen. The general consensus is that Musharraf is a soft target that Zardari has and will employ to sidetrack the much more contentious issue of deposed judiciary.
His critics say the PPP leader has demonstrated enough ambiguity over time to prove that he is not sincere about restoring the judges led by Chaudhry, who had stayed a controversial presidential ordinance that allowed Zardari to make a clean break from a slew of decade-old corruption cases in the garb of national reconciliation.
One of them said, tongue firmly in cheek: “The whopping 62-point constitutional package is just the weapon of mass distraction – our very own WMD – with which Zardari intends to keep all stakeholders busy till kingdom come.
The aim is to divert public attention from the judges issue to their favourite punching bag – Musharraf – and the coming budget, which will really test the government.
True to script, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, immediately sent a summary to call a session of the National Assembly in lieu of the presentation of the federal budget.
Musharraf was only too happy to oblige for, he too, could do with distraction over his serial transgression. The retired general admits packing off the superior judiciary was an extra-constitutional step.
While Musharraf’s stay in power has turned into a day-to-day affair despite President’s Bush’s desperate call to salvage an old ally, it is really Zardari’s call to take a reality check.
Many commentaries in the last week or so have concluded that dithering on the deposed judges is unlikely to work. The budget may prove what he makes out of it – a mass distraction – but what Zardari perhaps, does not realise is that given the ground situation, the budget may itself become a catalyst in the movement for the restoration of the deposed judiciary.
The lawyers Long March begins on June 10. Zardari returned to Pakistan only five months ago but the people, who saw the deposed top judge deliver justice on an unprecedented scale in his so far aborted stint, have crossed a certain threshold by enduring the worst of Musharraf’s one-man demolition army.
If the PPP co-chairman has been led to believe by a coterie of mostly, unelected advisors that creating a smokescreen and confusion in the ranks of all and sundry can help him find his way through the maze of current uncertainty, he is probably mistaken.