The Machiavelli

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Barring the lone nay vote of Kashmala Tariq, the 19th Constitutional Amendment has gone through the National Assembly unanimously. This rare consensus has only been reached on the process of judicial appointments and not on other contentious issues. Hence too much should not be read into it.

But even on this count, the parliament has jealously guarded its supremacy by not granting the superior judiciary a veto over judicial appointments. After the exit of the JUI(F), the real battle for the passing of the RGST bill has been indefinitely postponed. Practically speaking, the whole exercise has been shelved. New ways will have to be devised to satisfy the IMF, which a few months ago were implacable on the issue.

It is not so much the issue of taxation as of documentation of the economy. Hence the bazaar is resisting it at all costs. For the same reason the PML(N) has also backed out of its commitment to support the bill. Neither does the MQM want to alienate its core urban constituency.

This is despite the fact that the proposed tax will benefit the provinces. Being the largest province, virtually bankrupt Punjab will gain the most. But such are the vagaries of politics that transient political gains transcend national interest.

Our political elite is neither interested in paying taxes or documentation of the economy despite the fact that we have a dismally low tax-to-GDP ratio. The feudals that dominate the legislatures are in any case exempt and vociferously resist any talk of taxation. In the end analysis, it is the salaried class and the corporate entities that cannot escape documentation and hence have to pay.

One would have expected that our economic managers would have the backbone to stand up to their political masters. But it proved to be a forlorn hope. While the PSDP (Public Sector Development Programme) was drastically cut by slashing social sectors like health and higher education, politically motivated schemes like the Larkana and Multan packages remain intact.

The common man finding it virtually impossible to make ends meet is becoming increasingly disillusioned, viewing present democracy as more of a sham. After all, in order for a system to succeed, everyone should have a stake in it. Not just the elite.

Barring Nawaz Sharif there was much excitement amongst the political stakeholders in the aftermath of Maulana Fazlur-Rehmans exit from the ruling coalition. PML(Q) Chief Chaudhry Shujaat declared that he did not want to destabilise the system, while in the same breath claiming that nothing is final in politics. His Secretary General Syed Mushahid Hussain made the ultimate Freudian slip by boasting to the media that Chaudhry Sahib will soon be the prime minister.

The hullabaloo, however, turned out to be short-lived. The PML(N) supremo Nawaz Sharif, despite goading from his hawks, refused to play ball. Dashing hopes of an in-house change he claimed that he believed in nazrayiti siyasaat rather than politics of expediency.

As long as PML(N) is comfortably ruling Punjab, notwithstanding the shenanigans of Messrs Salmaan Taseer and Babar Awan, why should it tinker with the present dispensation of live and let live? In any case neither the PPP or the PML(N) is comfortable doing business with PML(Q). The MQM, initially miffed at the belligerent statements of Sindh Home Minister Dr Zulfiqar Mirza, has also been pacified.

President Zardari, feeling the heat, has finally given a detailed response to Nawaz Sharifs letter sent to him over a month ago. The reply was released to the media even before it was sent to the actual recipient. Nevertheless, it has helped in melting the ice. Now the ball is squarely in Mr. Sharifs court. It is up to him to give concrete proposals to the PPP-led coalition to clean its Augean stables. Slippery customer that the PPP is, once the heat is off it will probably again wriggle out of its commitments.

Hard-hitting speeches by opposition members in the National Assembly notwithstanding, there is little chance of these parties rallying together for a no-trust move against the government. Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman singled out the prime minister in the Parliament the other day for harsh criticism, but was careful not to attack the president. JUI(F) by holding on to a key standing committee has kept its foot in the door. Nor has it played ball with PML(Q) to dislodge the PPP-led collation in Balochistan.

As the leader of the opposition, Ch Nisar has a penchant for making vitriolic speeches in the National Assembly. But he absented himself after the voting on the 19th Amendment and did not even make a perfunctory speech as Leader of the Opposition. It is obvious that the PML(N) is in no mood to dislodge the government but it also does not like the stigma of being labeled as the friendly opposition.

That the military at some stage could engineer a coup or at least midwife some sort of a constitutional change has proved to be mere wishful thinking. Under General Kayani, it has demonstrated a strategic restraint unprecedented in the history of the country.

Even General Jehangir Karamat as COAS lost his patience with Nawaz Sharif. No such luck with the present military leadership. The PPP government has no problem with General Kayani being dubbed as the most powerful man in Pakistan. It is simply not bothered with power games and has conveniently reconciled itself with outsourcing major foreign policy initiatives and security policy to the military.

General Kayani in his recent meeting with media persons shared the contents of the 14-page policy paper on Afghanistan and US-Pak relations he had handed over to President Obama during the strategic dialogue in Washington. He proclaimed that the contents of the paper entirely penned by him were his views and not of the government. The military is quite content to rule without getting the flak for it.

Prime Minister Gilani has adamantly defended the ISI in the parliament. Similarly, Ch Nisar is upset about the ISI Chief being summoned by a US court. The real views of these gentlemen and their parties about the role of the ISI and its chief are quite contrary to their public pronouncements. But in these troubled times no one wants to be on the wrong side of the so-called establishment.

It can be safely said that President Zardari is the most astute politician around and has an uncanny and Machiavellian instinct of survival. Also that Mian Nawaz Sharif is the most principled politician around, who has shown tremendous restraint despite goading from his hawks. Hence the system trudges along despite the warts.

The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today.