By Irfan Husain
To be fair, Asif Zardari made a good start, surprising many by his efforts to create an inclusive alliance.
It isn’t often that I agree with Nawaz Sharif. However, when he said a few weeks ago that the PPP was its own worst enemy, he put his finger on the problem this government has faced since it was sworn in nearly two years ago.
This was in response to Asif Zardari’s charge that he and his government were being targeted by ‘non-state actors’. Other PPP figures darkly alluded to the possibility of an army coup against the government. A senior legal counsel appeared to make a similar allegation before the Supreme Court. A section of the media was accused of being a part of this plot.
Just for the record, let me say that the establishment in Pakistan has consistently opposed the PPP, and has worked hard to keep it out of power. And whenever it has been elected, these people have redoubled their efforts to kick it out. Having said this, let me also add that the PPP has done little to foil these attempts. Time after time, it has fallen victim to its own incompetence and corruption.
The reality is that it is much easier to remove a weak, ineffectual government through extra-constitutional means than it is to get rid of a strong, effective one. To be fair, Asif Zardari made a good start, surprising many by his efforts to create an inclusive alliance. However, he soon stumbled by making promises he could not, or would not, keep. This tendency has kept the government forever on the defensive, and even its few good initiatives have been overshadowed by its clumsy manoeuvres.
In politics, perceptions are more important than reality. And increasingly, the public sees this government as unable to deliver on a wide range of issues. High on this list is security. Even though the rise of the Taliban can be blamed on Musharraf, the fact is that he is no longer around, so his successor has to take responsibility for the state of insecurity in which millions of Pakistanis are living through.
The energy crisis is another critical issue that this government has failed to focus on adequately. Granted that here, too, the Musharraf administration failed to plan ahead and make the necessary investment, the PPP has had over 18 months to find short-term and long-term solutions to this chronic problem. While allegations of corruption swirl around the minister concerned, he has neither delivered, and nor has he been sacked.
For the third time in power, the PPP is being accused of sleaze. Stories of graft are doing the rounds in the drawing rooms of our elite, and while this might not be such a big deal for much of the voting public, the fact is that this perception has been used as an excuse to remove governments in the past. And yet when a PPP minister declared on a popular TV talk show that it was ‘now the PPP’s turn to make money’, he was not instantly sacked as he should have been. This would have sent a signal that this time, the PPP leadership would not tolerate corruption.
Or, when cases in Switzerland against Asif Zardari and Benazir Bhutto were dropped, and some bank accounts in their names with around $60m unfrozen, the president had a wonderful opportunity to clear his name of at least some of the allegations that have stuck for years. He could have announced that just as he had been saying ever since he was accused of money-laundering by the Swiss, he had no idea who this money belonged to. He was therefore going to donate this apparent windfall to a poverty fund set up in Benazir Bhutto’s memory. But I suppose $60m is a lot of money to hand out, even to clear your name.
Buried in these charges of poor governance and corruption lie a number of excellent initiatives. The agreement over resource-sharing among the provinces was a major achievement. The decision to incorporate the northern areas into the mainstream political system was another. Reaching out to Baloch nationalists was an act of statesmanship no general could have been capable of. Unfortunately, none of these resonate very deeply among a public crushed by high prices and unemployment.
True, the PPP does not have a magic wand to solve decades of accumulated problems. But surely it could have set an example of austerity and frugality. Instead of defending itself against allegations of corruption, it could have been more transparent and upfront. In Karachi last month, I met two ladies at different social occasions who demanded to know how I could support democracy when it led to the election of a person like Asif Zardari. Both blamed him personally for the rise in sugar prices. When, they demanded to know, would we be rid of him? I suggested that they wait until the next election, adding that to the best of my knowledge, sugar prices are beyond any individual’s control. Indeed, they are even impervious to the Supreme Court’s diktat.
International prices, and the forces of supply and demand, determine what we pay for most commodities. Their Lordships would do well to remember this simple economic reality the next time they venture into the tricky area of commodity pricing.
In the midst of such allegations, one can hear the refrain we are so familiar with: democracy isn’t working, so bring back the army.
This is the sub-text in many of our popular TV chat shows. As we saw when the army-led media campaign against the Kerry-Lugar Act was in overdrive, there are indeed a number of ‘non-state’ actors, egged on by shadowy, well-heeled agencies, who can unleash a ferocious anti-government media barrage when the need arises.
Unfortunately, this government lacks people who can stand up to this kind of orchestrated campaign. Time and again, its spokespersons have come across as shrill and ill-prepared while being grilled by overbearing and opinionated TV anchors. But more importantly than its image is the delivery: an effective government is in a stronger position to counter media charges, as well as the destabilising efforts of ‘non-state actors’.
Saturday, 30 Jan, 2010