By Najam Sethi
Almost every disaster in Pakistan has led to a change in regime. Will Zardari survive the floods?
If lost wars have been harbingers of political change in Pakistan, unprecedented and neglected natural disasters have also provoked social unrest and regime change.
Consider. Pakistan provoked the 1965 war with India over Kashmir but Gen Ayub Khan was compelled to sue for peace in Tashkent. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto exploited the public’s simmering displeasure, created the PPP, vowed to wage a 1000 year war with India to reclaim national honour and launched a movement to overthrow his mentor.
Regime change duly followed a couple of years later.
General Yahya Khan was riding the crest of popularity in 1970 when Cyclone Bhola hit East Pakistan. The apathy, neglect and incompetence of the “ West Pakistani- Punjabi” administration in the wake of death and destruction — over 3 million people were displaced and hundreds of thousands died — provoked such bitter and large scale resentment that the Bengalis swept away all West- Pakistan allied parties and gave a thumping vote to the nationalist Awami League of Sheikh Mujeeb- ur- Rehman in the general elections that followed. That set the stage for civil war, dismemberment and regime change in Pakistan in 1971.
In May 1999, Pakistan’s civil- military establishment embarked on an ill- fated adventure against India at Kargil. When escalation threatened to engulf the region into war, Pakistan was compelled to beg the US to bail it out. In the aftermath of distrust and acrimony between the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the army establishment led by General Pervez Musharraf, over their respective shares of responsibility for the debacle, a constitutional coup by the former was overtaken by an unconstitutional one by the latter. As a result, the top political leaders of the country were exiled and the political system was hijacked by the military for nearly ten years.
BY THIS historical yardstick, are the worst floods in living memory, which have wrought death and destruction on an unprecedented scale, also fated to sweep away the Zardari regime whose general incompetence, lack of credibility and feeble relief efforts have compounded the peoples’ distress? Certainly, there is no dearth of pundits predicting, even exhorting, regime change. The problem is that it is not just the Zardari regime that is being flogged.
It is politicians, as a generic category, including the Sharif government in the Punjab and the ANP in Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa, that are at the receiving end of the stick for being corrupt, incompetent, uncaring and selfish. The only institution to come out smelling like roses is the Pakistan army, whose chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, is all over the place in immaculate khakis, supervising high- profile relief efforts. Some people want all flood related donations and budgetary diversions to be transferred to the army’s kitty for transparent and efficient disbursement. Others are already hankering for a return to military rule and security and stability over “ unaffordable niceties” like elections and democracy and representation.
But Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif, despite their fumbling and stumbling, are no fools. They know where their party political interests diverge and where their political system interests converge. So their blame game has wisely subsided in the face of media hostility and General Kayani’s rising brownie points. But the road ahead is still murky.
Given the Zardari administration’s abysmal track record and the paucity of funds for the purpose, rehabilitation and reconstruction on such a large scale is going to be a far more difficult and taxing enterprise. The hawk- eyed media is constantly going to paint a dismal picture of negligence, corruption and leakages in the rehabilitation effort.
Worse, if a neutral experts inquiry should find that much of the death and destruction in the Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan could have been avoided by timely administrative intervention by way of blasting breaches on the right bank of the Indus upstream at Taunsa Barrage as laid down by the Manual, thereby forestalling left bank flooding of populated areas, all hell will break loose against the Punjab government of Shahbaz Sharif which manages the canal and Barrage system. The former chief minister of Punjab, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, has already accused the Punjab government of irresponsible decision- making at the site of the Taunsa Barrage.
If the necessary conditions for regime change are therefore present, more or less, in the developing situation, what might create the sufficient conditions to tilt it over? A contraction of the economy by 5- 10 per cent this year, coupled with food shortages, inflation and epidemics, is predicted by international monitoring and aid giving agencies. In the face of inept political governments, this could compel General Kayani to initiate a more workable and stable political dispensation than the one at hand. The army wants to focus on winning the war against the Taliban.
For this it needs a robust economy and efficient government shorn of politicking and squabbling. To achieve this purpose, it can either seize power via a coup or replace the current power- wielders in government with a more honest, efficient and neutral lot.
BUT A coup can be ruled out for two main reasons. However much the free media may dislike and criticise the politicians, and despite the army’s rising graph of popularity, the media’s fierce independence is predicated on a democratic system. Any honeymoon with a new lot of generals in league with the US Pentagon, will not last long. Similarly, after their heroic struggle to restore the supremacy of the law, the bar and bench will not countenance any deviation from, let along violation of, the constitution.
The other option is that of contriving a “ national government” of all political stakeholders, which would include nominees of the army, judiciary and media apart from credible representatives of the mainstream political parties. This would entail ousting President Zardari by means of a supreme court judgment on some constitutional count or the other, nudging his partners, especially the ANP and MQM, to ditch his coalition government, and convincing Nawaz Sharif — this is going to be the big obstacle — to give a vote of confidence to a neutral parliamentarian nominated by the army to head a national government of all stakeholders until elections in 2013.
Mr Zardari has survived a running political crisis for two years. Will his luck hold in the next two months? The natural disaster has stacked the cards in the hands of General Kayani, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. The game they play will have meaningful consequences for Pakistan.
The writer is Editor, The Friday Times
Source: Mail Today