The plot thickens in Punjab

Daily: Pakistan Observer
Date: 22.11.08

To what extent the policy of papering over the cracks in the coalition of the PPP and the
PML-N in Punjab will continue to serve the purpose is yet to be seen. One thing, however,
is sure that there are certain issues playing underneath to get the cracks visible.

Retrospectively, it was shared ambition to reintroduce and perpetuate democracy in the
country – over and above defeating the military dictatorship. The common objective
became a vital nexus between the PPP and the PML-N, the two mainstream political parties,
to respect existence and the electoral mandate of each other. The aspiration was
documented in the form of the Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed in London more than a
year ago. The signing of the CoD was predicated on the assumption that every signatory
political party would follow the principles and pledges enshrining therein. Nevertheless,
after the Feb-18 (2008) elections, the events got convoluted, so did the intentions of the
ruling regime.

One such event was departure of General Pervaiz Musharraf who had incurred the odium
of the lawyers by forcefully barring Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the Chief Justice of
Pakistan, from attending the Supreme Court. None the less, with the exit of Musharraf, the
factor converging the PPP and PML-N disappeared – as it had been conjectured. Instead,
the atmosphere of distrust pervaded prodding the PML-N to opt out of the coalition, desert
the government’s folds and sit on the opposition benches. The PML-N followed the course.

With advent of the era of the incumbent government, capital started flowing out of the
country raising inflation and devaluing rupee. Consequently, the government had to resort
to its preconceived – some say, preordained – plan C and asked for help of the IMF. But
opting for the plan C was not the end of the story. By the time things degenerated to the
level of plan C, the political weaknesses of the government compelled it to embrace into its
fold more politicians as ministers. Had expansion of the ministerial base been performance
oriented, the situation could have been decoded in a different, better way. Patently, the
intention – if it is read accurately – was to ward off the possibility of political dissension that
might lead to political disaster invoking the probability of mid-term elections. Nevertheless,
the dilemma attached to the fear-driven expansion was the expected expenditures that
would mount up to keep the offices of the ministers run and, of course, to keep the
ministers mollified.

The situation was ripe for Ahsan Iqbal of the PML-N to comment that the government
should slash its expenditures by refusing appointments to jiyalas and avoiding carrying
huge entourages on official trips. Ahsan’s remarks clearly nettled the PPP to its core.
Indubitably, the purport of the statement was to jolt the treasury benches. Subsequently, an
interview of Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N surfaced criticizing government’s dependence on
the IMF, besides the phlegmatic response of the government to restoration of the deposed
judges and the apathetic approach of the President, Asif Ali Zardari, to show resolve to do
away with the ills of the Constitution protected under the 17th Amendment.

Borrowing from the IMF was considered a natty solution to the economic woes of the
country. Nawaz might be apprehensive of the fact that the brunt of payment would be borne
by the government coming next to the present one, as the date of debt servicing would start
in 2012 and end in 2016. That is, for the initial four years (2008-2012), the incumbent
government will just be receiving and spending the loan while the first four years (2013-
2016) of the next government will be spent in repayment and debt servicing. So if Nawaz
foresees next government as his one, he is justified to be worried to obviate the repayment
obligation – a nagging problem enfolding potential to make any government fall flat.

The criticism ignited uproar in the PPP circles. Yosuf Raza Gillani, the Prime Minister,
issued a responsive statement immediately that whosoever could run the country better
should come forward to take charge – an implied challenge to the leadership of the PML-N.
Subsequently, Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, also sprung into action by sending
a string of letters to Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab, conveying displeasure on
certain steps taken by the Punjab government on various issues including supporting
surreptitiously the lawyers’ movement and reintroducing the Commissioner system (without
prior approval of the central government). The government of Shahbaz responded by
levelling counter-allegations.

This is yet the beginning of the end. What unravelled in the centre – disunity budding from
distrust – is bound to untie the coalition of the PPP and the PML-N in the province of
Punjab. Not ‘if’ but ‘when’ is the next question. The ingrained insecurity of the central
government is bound to push it to commit more mistakes. On the other hand, with the
passage of time, perpetual reminders from the PML-N regarding the pledges made under
the CoD are bound to rise in number and intensity. The scenario if projected into the future
prefigures a collision between the PPP and the PML-N in Punjab – though in the centre
both parted affably.

The signing of the CoD was a prologue to better relations in the future between the two
parties – after they put their past behind. Unfortunately, before these relations could ripe
further, distrust sprouting from the act of dishonouring the pledges, written and oral, by the
leadership of the PPP caused the relations to unripe. The coalition of the PPP and the PML-
N in Punjab is now oscillating between the resolve to forge unity (as depicted in the CoD)
for the sake of democracy and confrontation (as the ground realities are unfolding) for the
sake of personal security. Of course, the plot thickens in Punjab ever than before.

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