For those who had placed their bets on ‘Aman ki Asha’, 2013 has certainly brought bad news. But aren’t they themselves to be blamed for expecting the impossible? Expecting that the venom of hatred infused into their people over the years by the leaders on both sides could easily and quickly be remedied merely by the antidote of ‘Confidence Building Measures’ (CBMs) while they themselves  continue to foster an environment of mutual mistrust!

The reaction of New Delhi and Islamabad to the recent incidents on the LoC serves as a grim reminder that the basic philosophy of ‘building bridges’ through CBM initiatives by increasing ‘people to people’ contact is flawed. Flawed, not because the concept in itself is wrong, but because the leaders themselves don’t seem to be interested in setting an example by displaying confidence in each other. Though, both countries are now showing some sanity in their dealings, the damage done to the precarious bilateral relationship between the two by irresponsible statements like “there can be no business as usual” and “war mongering” has undone whatever little may have been achieved by the CBMs.

However, despite both sides reiterating that the bilateral ties had not been derailed, the recent turn of events suggest otherwise. New Delhi, suddenly like a bolt out of the blue, raked up the issue of the relevance of the UN Military Observer Group (UNMOGIP) on the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir.  Declaring that “UNMOGIP’s role has been overtaken by the Shimla Agreement of 1972 between India and Pakistan, signed by the Heads of the two governments and ratified by their respective parliaments,” the Indian representative suggested its termination. As expected, Pakistan strongly denounced New Delhi’s contention by saying that no bilateral agreement between the two nations had “overtaken or affected” the role or legality of the UNMOGIP.

 New Delhi initiated the UNMOGIP debate under the garb of better spending of resources allocated for the Observer Group elsewhere in difficult economic times. However, as expected, this ‘noble’ proposition with fiscal import failed to cut any ice as the issue under discussion was an open debate on peacekeeping and not on austerity measures. Why New Delhi decided to deviate from its age-old policy of ‘letting the sleeping dogs lie’ to bring up the UNMOGIP issue and the timing it chose to do so, defies comprehension.  So, while nothing came out of this debate, old wounds were reopened and normalisation of the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Islamabad has taken yet another body blow.

Islamabad too seems to be itching for a chance to ‘take on’ New Delhi. Just a day after the Jamaat-ud-Dawa Chief, Hafiz Saeed offered ‘asylum’ to Bollywood star Sharukh Khan, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik too joined in by saying that though Sharukh Khan “is a born Indian and he would like to remain Indian, but I will request the government of India (to) please provide him security.” Not content with his ‘request’ to the Government of India, Malik went on to appeal to the Indian public that, “I would like to request all Indian brothers and sisters and all those who are talking in a negative way about Shah Rukh, they should know he is a movie star." While New Delhi may be annoyed at Malik’s ‘request’, the people of India will perhaps remain ever grateful to the Pakistani Interior Minister for enlightening them with the fact that Sharukh Khan is “a movie star!”

Can bilateral ties between India and Pakistan improve if Pakistan agrees that the UNMOGIP is not required any longer in J&K and India reciprocates by providing Shahrukh Khan ‘Z’ category security? Though the recent exchanges between New Delhi and Islamabad may bring a whiff of humour into our lives, the dismal future of the bilateral relations, which the present ‘line of engagement’ portends, is disquieting and sends shivers down the spine. It is high time that leaders of both countries stop behaving like schoolchildren and remedy the serious ‘foot-in-the- mouth’ disease, which seems to have afflicted them. Till this happens, ‘Aman ki Asha’ will remain a distant dream and bilateral relations will become another ‘comedy circus’!




A long way to go

Judging from the comments of some of Zardari’s political associates – often a better indicator of his intentions than any promises made by the great man himself – the country may have just taken a step away from the goal of parliamentary democracy. It elected a president more in the mould of his illustrious predecessor Pervez Musharraf – head of state, head of the executive and head of the party, all rolled into one – than a constitutional figurehead like Chaudhry Fazal Ilahi or Rafiq Tarar. Zardari’s statements and actions after the election also suggest that he might not content himself with being the constitutional head of state but in addition would like to keep the two other roles of de facto head of government and leader of the party.

Although the PPP and the other coalition partners committed themselves in their statement of Aug 7 to implement the Charter of Democracy and repeal the 17th Amendment, Zardari himself has been noticeably reticent on these questions. He has also been evasive on the question whether he will retain the co-chairmanship of the party. His declaration, shortly after his election, that he would be answerable to Parliament, shows that he is having difficulties adjusting to the straitjacket of the Constitution, according to which it is the prime minister, not the president, who is the head of the executive branch and, together with the other members of the cabinet, collectively responsible to the National Assembly.

Zardari’s article in The Washington Post (Sept 4) will only feed doubts about his intentions. One of his highest priorities as president, he writes, would be an amendment of the Constitution to "bring back into balance the powers of the presidency." The new buzzword in the lexicon of the PPP is "balance." This is disquieting, because under the parliamentary system, the executive authority of the Federation vests in the federal government, of which the prime minister is the head. Bringing about a "balance," as the PPP now says it will be doing, suggests that some of the executive powers taken over by Musharraf might be retained by our newly elected president.

Zardari writes further in his article that the judiciary has to be "reconstituted." This is newspeak for the selective reappointment of some handpicked judges and amounts to a purge of the judiciary of exactly the kind that was carried out by Musharraf last November. If Zardari succeeds in his schemes, he will have fashioned a fully politicised judiciary, a feat that not even Musharraf was able to accomplish.

No amount of quibbling by Farooq Naek can hide the fact that Zardari has not allowed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to return to his post, because under an independent judiciary he fears a reopening of the corruption cases which were closed under the NRO. Zardari also opted to become the president because it gives him immunity from criminal proceedings that the more powerful office of prime minister does not.

But the taint of corruption will not be washed away by the NRO. Similarly, the presidency will continue to be handicapped by reports that Zardari was suffering from psychiatric disorders until last year. When you add to that the reputation of an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer, that is a lot of unnecessary ballast for the highest office of state.

In his article, Zardari accuses "the establishment and its allies" of having unleashed a campaign of character assassination against him. This will simply not wash. In other countries, far less serious allegations of graft or of psychological problems are held to disqualify for public office. In 1972 Senator Thomas Eagleton, candidate of the Democratic Party for vice president of the United States, was taken off the ticket two weeks after he was named, when it became known that he had undergone electroshock therapy for depression.

Now that Zardari has been elected, he can do at least two things to salvage some of the damage that allegations of corruption and questions about his psychological state have done. First, he should make a declaration of his assets and those of his family. This is not a legal requirement but it will do a lot of good to his reputation by taking away some of the sting from the corruption charges. Second, he should make public the reports of doctors who, as our high commissioner in London has said, have now declared Zardari fit to run for political office.

Zardari writes that Pakistani politics has always been a struggle between democratic forces in the country and an elite oligarchy, located exclusively in a region stretching between Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad. The provinces of Sindh, the NWFP and Balochistan, as well as all of rural Punjab, he says, have often been excluded from governance. Zardari is right about the stranglehold of a small, deeply entrenched elite, not only on power but also on wealth and privilege; but he is wrong in his claim that it comes from a particular geographical region.

As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto used to say, this elite – for the most part corrupt, parasitic, decadent and rapacious – comes largely from the feudal class. It has since then been joined by others who have prospered under our corrupt government structures and an exploitative economic system. Another thing that has changed since Bhutto’s days is that many members of this elite now own properties in exclusive localities of cities like London and New York, get away with paying hardly any taxes, proudly own foreign passports and travel in expensive cars or huge SUVs accompanied by gun-toting bodyguards. Just visit the parking lot of the Parliament, if you want proof.

It is this very elite, represented out of all proportion in the Parliament which elected Zardari as president. And, let us be honest, it is going to be a very hard sell for his spin doctors to convince anyone that he does not belong to this class. He would therefore do well to refrain from playing its victim. Those who live in glass houses, as they say, should not throw stones.

The danger now is that after having captured the presidency and strengthened his hold on the judiciary, Zardari might press ahead with the "concentration of unchecked power" for which he castigates the establishment in his Washington Post article. Punjab is likely to be the scene of the next showdown with the PML-N. The PPP leadership has two potent weapons in its arsenal to wage this fight: the corruption cases against the Sharif brothers and the pending court hearings on their qualification for election to Parliament. Some PML-N leaders have declared that these cases are politically motivated. That may be true, but if they are innocent, they should welcome the opportunity to prove it in the courts. They should then call upon Zardari to do the same by standing trial before an independent court – after scrapping the NRO.

One of the greatest disservices done by Musharraf was to discredit the whole system of accountability, though not its concept. What the country needs badly is not a dismantling of the machinery of accountability, as the Senate demanded unanimously last month, but a system which enjoys the trust of the people. But this is a wish unlikely to be fulfilled as long as Zardari remains at the helm.

If Zardari truly wants to put the country on the path to stability, democracy and prosperity, he has to do at least three things:

First, he should immediately introduce legislation to undo the 17th Amendment, as he is committed to do, without linking it to other issues, like constitutional protection for the NRO or amnesty for Musharraf, on which the PML-N holds different views.

Second, he should restore all deposed judges, including the chief justice, in accordance with the Murree Declaration. An independent judiciary which enjoys the trust of the people constitutes the indispensable third pillar of state. Without it, our democratic structures will remain fragile and the shadow of political uncertainty that has been hanging over the country since the rupture of the PPP/PML-N coalition will not be removed. By restoring the judges, Zardari will also earn back some of the trust he has forfeited by repeatedly breaking his word.

Third, he should quit the leadership of the party and stop operating the prime minister through remote control. If he is not prepared to do that, he should resign as president and become prime minister.

Let us not kid ourselves that Zardari’s election signals the dawn of constitutional rule and parliamentary democracy. There is still a long way to go. The political leadership of the country is on trial. Zardari’s hardest test has yet to come.