Manipal, India — Despite substantial effort by the administration of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to ensure a majority for his Pakistan Muslim League (Q) and the Pakistan People’s Party in last February’s general election, it failed. Although cheated of the majority it should have had, Nawaz Sharif's PML(N) ran a respectable second to the PPP.
Although Musharraf sought an alliance between his loyalists and the PPP in exchange for having smoothed the way for the Bhutto clan to resume high office, "friendly advice" from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, eager to secure unified political backing in Pakistan for its War on Terror, made Benazir Bhutto’s heir Asif Ali Zardari cobble up an alliance between the PPP and the PML(N).
Although the PPP has a Sindhi ethnic base, Zardari appointed a Seraiki Punjabi, Y. R. Gilani, as prime minister. Given his ethnicity and donnish approach to politics, Gilani has very little support within the PPP, in contrast to the more popular Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who is from Sindh. However, this very lack of support means that Gilani is less likely than Fahim to pose a challenge to the control that Benazir Bhutto's husband Zardari wields over the PPP. And being from Punjab, it is expected that he would be able to improve the tally of the PPP in that all-important province, at the expense of Nawaz Sharif.
His numerous personal and financial skeletons mean that Zardari has little option but to remain tethered to any "advice" given by the Pakistan army, in particular its intelligence wing. The army in Pakistan has mastered the art of throwing just enough crumbs Washington's way to keep the White House happy, while in practice refusing to dismantle or even delink from the terror networks developed under its supervision since the 1980s.
The new "popular" administration is following this tested policy of chiding the terror networks in public but winking at their activities, when not encouraging them. The Indian military says that there has been a substantial increase in jihadi infiltration from Pakistan into Kashmir since the "democratic" government was sworn in on March 25, 2008. Now that the civilian government is there to take the blame, the Paskistan army seems to be shedding the restraint that it exercised when Musharraf was in full charge.
Pakistan's new prime minister, like his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, may be termed a "virtual" PM, for real leadership is exercised by Zardari in Pakistan and Sonia Gandhi in India. For the PPP, which worked out a deal with Musharraf more than a year ago, the wily survivor is less of a threat than Nawaz Sharif. The PML(N) is insisting on the reinstatement of the 60 judges superseded or dismissed by Musharraf, aware that several of them have been on course to indict the PPP supremo for corruption and other crimes, disregarding the support given to him by Musharraf. Should the PPP-led administration agree to the reinstatement of the judges, it would take less than a year for the cases against Zardari to be revived, with uncertain consequences for his continued liberty.
On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif -- who as prime minister was known for dismissing and superseding judges as airily as Musharraf -- has now morphed into a supporter of judicial autonomy. Few expect such a change in policy to last beyond another stint in power for Nawaz Sharif, whose enmity to Musharraf has made him a less-than-welcome figure to the Bush administration.
More than six decades have gone by since the Union Jack was lowered from the government buildings of New Delhi, yet Western politicians find it impossible to resist the temptation to gerrymander political change in the Third World. The fact that most such experiments have caused substantial blowback -- as in Lebanon -- has not affected this propensity. It was unrealistic to expect that the PPP and the PML(N) would work together in Pakistan, a combination about as viable as a McCain-Obama ticket in the United States.
Should Zardari go along with Sharif, he would lose the support of Musharraf as well as expose himself to fresh judicial scrutiny -- an unwelcome prospect. The best option would be to avoid any other provocation that could give Nawaz Sharif the excuse he needs to emerge as an opposition force, rather than a half-hearted ally now without the benefits of office. However, it is doubtful that Sharif would tolerate being in such limbo for much longer. Short of arresting him on charges of graft -- not a difficult matter in Pakistan -- the prospects are for Sharif and his party to challenge the PPP in the streets.
Should Asif Zardari take over the reins of office from the inoffensive, ineffective Gilani -- again an exact replica of his Indian counterpart -- the slide in the PPP's popularity would accelerate. However, together with the Musharraf loyalists as well as smaller parties eager to remain within the periphery of power, he would still command a healthy majority in the National Assembly.
The only way out for Sharif would be to make the country ungovernable by rousing the people against the administration, initially on the issue of the judges but later the more deadly problems of price rises and unemployment. Pakistan is headed for exciting days, ones that will expose the folly of seeking through backstage maneuvering to impose alien preferences in place of the people's will.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)