The Ides of March


President Zardari having the sole distinction of addressing the joint sitting of the parliament for the fourth consecutive year, the PPP government has completed three years of remaining in power. It is a rarity in our political milieu that elected governments are allowed to complete their terms. Most, except those under the wings of a military strongman, have lasted less than three years.

One of the reasons why Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed Benazir Bhuttos government in November 1996 was that the military establishment of the time feared that in the forthcoming elections of the Senate in March the next year, the PPP would have control of both the houses. At that time poor governance, perceived corruption and a virulent opposition helped the establishment make up its mind to dismiss Benazir for the second time.

At the time Indias economic resurgence resulting in an increasing gap between the military s capabilities of the two countries had started worrying our policy makers. The military-bureaucratic establishment of the time did not trust the PPP considering it a security risk.

Mian Nawaz Sharif as the leader of the opposition played the Punjab card to the hilt to curry favour with the ubiquitous establishment. This was despite the fact that earlier he, also as prime minister, had fallen out with President Ghulam Ishaq and was shown the door by the then COAS General Waheed Kakar in 1993.

Have times changed since then? There is a vibrant media, independent courts and a military establishment ostensibly uninterested in an overt takeover. Another important difference is that none in the mainstream opposition, with the exception of Altaf Hussain, who wants patriotic generals to bring a revolution, are in favour of a military takeover.

However, this does not mean that some amongst the politicians and the media would not like to see the back of the Zardari government with a little help from the army. There are others albeit in a minority who would not mind anything but Zardari, even if it means a military takeover.

Some political pundits are predicting that March 2012 when the next Senate Elections are due, as the cut-off date for the government. If the PPP coalition manages to stick around till then, it will have majority in both the houses of the parliament.

Of course, heavens will not fall if that happens. Under a democratic dispensation any political party worth its salt would do its level best to eke out a majority in the parliament. Why should the PPP be the exception and denied this right? Military strongmen in Pakistan have ruled without any checks and balances, with impunity and played havoc with the vital interests of the country in the process. But rules for politicians have always been different.

There are vital differences between 1996 and now. Fiercely independent courts, a free media and a recalcitrant opposition are theoretically big checks on the excesses of the government. However, there are some who can rightly argue that such constraints have not deterred the government to do what it wants to do. It simply does not listen to the sane voices in the media and fails to implement the edicts of the courts in letter and spirit.

President Zardari in his address has spoken of consensus building inviting all political parties for a national dialogue. Ironically, the PML(N) and JUI(F), both erstwhile coalition partners, staged a walkout refusing to listen to the president. PML(Q), PPP-Sherpao and JI also followed suit. So much for consensus building. Sometime back Nawaz Sharif formally rejected Zardaris invitation for an All Parties Conference (APC).

The PPP should ponder why it has squandered so much goodwill and support in the past three years? Nawaz Sharif, before his party decided to show the door to the PPP in Punjab, told me that he was quite fed up of Mr Zardari. He felt that the president neither had the will nor the capacity to implement his commitments.

Half-hearted attempts were made by the PPP government to implement the 10-point agenda mooted by the PML(N). But the will to introduce much needed reforms much needed to extricate the country from its present impasse seem to be missing.

The government takes just pride in introducing far-reaching constitutional reforms, NFC Award, conducting the war on terror and increase in foreign reserves and exports. The economy, however, remains sluggish. The problem of circular debt, endemic power shortages and lack of transparency are still haunting us, impacting upon economic growth.

Most of the public corporations continue to be packed by cronies or incompetent persons. In the name of protecting the rights of the workers there is stiff resistance to privatising them. As a result they continue to bleed the economy.

The leader of the opposition in the parliament Nisar Ali Khan has rightly complained that the parliament was recently by-passed imposing fresh taxes through an ordinance. The government can argue that it was in a fix on the issue. If it had introduced its mini budget in the parliament, it would not have been approved and without the additional taxation, the IMF programme would remain perennially stalled.

Nevertheless this was a cynical move to short circuit the parliament symptomatic of complete lack of consensus on vital issues. Prime Minister Gilani who prides himself on his consensus building abilities is becoming increasingly isolated and irrelevant to the whole process. Unless the government takes steps followed by concrete measures to bring the opposition on board, it is fast losing its steam. Its internecine squabbles with the MQM and unabated killings in Karachi are further exacerbating the matters.

Being on a collision course with the apex court also underscores the need to build a political consensus and strengthening of the parliament. The ISI chief, and before him the COAS General Kayani, have taken extensions which essentially means that the present military leadership will be in place to see the next general elections through.

Taking a leaf from ancient Rome, Julius Caesar on his way to the Theatre of Pompey where Brutus assassinated him visited a seer who told him no harm would come to him later than the ides of March. To this Caesar joked, Well, the ides of March have come to which the seer replied, They have come, but not gone.

The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today.