President Asif Zardari is an old hand at politics by now, some of his post-Benazir Bhutto moves so subtle, suave and disarming yet lethal that even his opponents grudgingly acknowledge his dexterity at being a few streets ahead of them. And why not, some ‘Quotable Quotes’ about him in WikiLeaks notwithstanding, he has done the trapeze artist’s stunts much too often, coming out of the scrapes with his signature grin plastered ear to ear.
He has had his share of about turns, but none with the exception of restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has come back to haunt him as has been his latest appeasement of the MQM. That, when this sometimes ally but mostly a nemesis was literally on the mat, and too desperate to claw its way back – even if it meant unleashing a reign of terror on Karachi. Abolishing the recently-restored commisionerate system in Karachi and Hyderabad and the reinstatement of the much-reviled Musharraf-era local bodies (LB) system in a jiffy meant handing back the two cities to the MQM after resisting the latter’s intense pressure over the issue for quite some time.
This particular appeasement fell in the realm of the mind-boggling, for its political repercussions were far too many. That the controversial move had to be extended overnight to the whole of Sindh was just the tip of the iceberg. Resentment over this caving in to the MQM in a manner so abject ran so deep that the ANP, the most staunch and trusted of the PPP’s allies in its current stint, and the Sindhi nationalists literally took to the barricades – quickly joining hands in an alliance with the intent to stymie the move.
Another unique aspect of this bizarre drama: for the first time ever Sindh has seen a strike so comprehensively successful against the PPP and on the call of the Sindhi nationalists, which reflects that their stance resonates with the people of Sindh. Perhaps resulting in a weakening of the so-called Sindh card, this must have rung alarm bells in the vicinity of the presidency, for the citadel now seemed so vulnerable.
The PPP’s federal and provincial ministers from the southern province have shown their rebellious colours with intensity and passion, criticising their own government both in the National Assembly and in the cabinet. One otherwise soft-spoken PPP parliamentarian reportedly even went to the extent of forbidding ‘Punjabi’ Senators Babar Awan and Rehman Malik from setting foot on the soil of Sindh.
Perhaps nonplussed by this stinging backlash, the PPP co-chairman has gone into hibernation.
Zardari’s motive behind giving in to the MQM in the name of conciliation is understandable. He intends to get past March 2012 in style, grabbing as many seats in the senate as possible before going in to the next elections, whenever it takes place. And rocking the boat too much, allowing Karachi to burn with its inhabitants dying by the score, with its enormous economic cost in these already trying times, was something that could not have been allowed to continue. And the MQM, knowing full well that carnage and mayhem was the only trump that it had for the PPP government (the latter having the numbers to not feel threatened from the former’s periodic tantrums), would not let go.
Whether Zardari blinked under duress (something, you’ve to grant him this, he is not known for) or humoured the MQM out of expediency is irrelevant. It was a rank bad and potentially costly call that has eroded his credibility because the ANP, and more importantly the Sindhis and his own PPP stalwarts, feel that he has buckled under the MQM tactics yet again. And this has exacerbated the already tense Karachi situation, alienated his loyal coalition partner, the ANP, and yielded to the MQM leader the title he desperately craves: the king of Karachi, if not the Sultan of Sindh.
Another corollary to the tragic continuing bloodshed in Karachi is that it has provided an excuse to the army, which had been keeping a low profile after the series of egg-on-the-face events of May, to reassert itself in a firm manner. The politically incorrect and intrusive comment, made public through an ISPR press release after the latest Corps Commanders meeting expressing their concern over the Karachi situation, is an indication of their new-found confidence.
Over the happenings in Karachi, there is disquiet and apprehension everywhere in the country with everybody watching it with some measure of trepidation. It is only natural that our commanders would be distressed by it. But it would have been advisable if this discontent was expressed in private.
And let us not be a victim of selective amnesia. The carnage in Karachi is not something new. It has been a cyclical affair since the mid 1980s. And MQM, of both the Mohajir (since rechristened as Muttahida) and Haqiqi variety, and the profusion of guns and violence, is mostly the handiwork of our ubiquitous agencies, which in Zia and post-Zia years were in the business of creating and sustaining such Frankensteins, not to mention cobbling together whole alliances to suit their own agendas.
The politicians will keep on bickering and squabbling, but, rest assured, they will ultimately find a solution to Karachi’s myriad problem by resorting to compromise. What our commanders should concentrate on is Balochistan, and how to reduce the footprint of you-know-who so that politicians are allowed to apply some balm there and the dangerous Baloch insurgency dies its natural death.
The writer is Sports and Magazines Editor, Pakistan Today.