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Every good politician has a back door. And Maulana Fazlur Rehman knows exactly how to create one for himself. You have to be over-optimistic to believe that he will stay out of the ruling coalition for too long. It would have been difficult for him to resist the temptation of taking phone calls from the Presidency and the PM House but he might have done in hope of a better deal coming through. The Maulana is just trying to play it cool.

The JUI(F) pulled out of the coalition at the Centre in protest against the sacking of its minister Azam Swati from the federal cabinet. Prime Minister Gilani showed him the door along with the Religious Affairs Minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi for mudslinging at each other despite his repeated warnings. The Maulana was annoyed over the unceremonious dismissal of his minister and he had a point in that the PM should have made a distinction between the offences committed by Kazmi and Swati. If one was being alleged for corruption in the arrangement of Hajj, the other was only being blunt in asking him to resign and explain his position. But the reason why the Maulana quickly decided to quit the coalition was that he knew anything less than that would have offended Swati, who happens to be his partys principle financier.

The PPP received a blow at a time when it was looking for the support of its allies on various issues including the RGST Bill which awaits approval of parliament. After the JUI(F)s angry exit, it has to struggle really hard to maintain the majority of the ruling coalition which has come down to 185, still 13 more than the required strength of 172. The numbers game is intriguing. But the JUI(F)s departure could spell trouble for the PPP only if the MQM decides to follow suit. That seems far-fetched. The MQM leadership has already given President Zardari and his Central Executive Committee 10 days to clarify that Sindh Home Minister Zulfikar Mirzas outbursts against his coalition partners were not part of the PPPs policy. And it doesnt take a genius to predict that the desired explanation will come before the ultimatum ends.

Whereas the naysayers find the ruling coalition heading for a collapse, the PPP is trying to avoid the worst-case scenario by searching for new allies. Its PML(Q) which can compensate for the loss in case the MQM also withdraws its support at the Centre. Out of its original strength of 51, the PML(Q) still has 42 MNAs in its fold. This means nine more than the combined strength of the MQM and the JUI-F. Then there were also reports of President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani having contacted Senator Salim Saifullah Khan to muster the support of the like-minded group which has nine members in the National Assembly. Maybe after encountering a political crisis caused by the JUI(F)s abrupt parting of the ways, the PPP leadership has decided to concentrate on consolidating its strength much beyond the existing count of 185.

As far as the Chaudhrys of Gujrat are concerned, they would be more than happy to join hands with the PPP. Those who believe that the PML(Q) leadership might be facing opposition from within the party must be reading too much into Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayats frequent tirades against the PPP functionaries. The Makhdoom and the Chaudhrys will be on the same page since all of them are going to benefit from the deal. The only bargain the PML(Q) will be looking for is the PPPs support in overthrowing the PML(N) government in the Punjab. The Chaudhrys know that they will not be able to immediately achieve the objective but they are confident that the dissidents who left them in the lurch in the aftermath of the 2008 elections will be gradually returning to their fold. But in the final analysis, the PPP will have to learn the art of running a coalition.

There is no denying that the PPP leadership is inept at handling government affairs and that it lacks the ability to hold its allies together. The PM cannot escape the blame for provoking the JUI(F) to quit the government in a bid to divert public attention from the Hajj scam that might expose some of those closely associated with him. Azam Swati is no longer under any moral obligation to hide from the court the secrets he might have been keeping close to his chest so far. But that he can do only if Maulana Fazlur Rehman sticks to his principled stance of not rejoining the ruling coalition. After all, he has seen his boss indulging in brinkmanship to extract more concessions, only to retreat in the end. And thats how the Maulanas typical eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too politics keeps thriving.

The writer is Executive Editor, Pakistan Today.