The ongoing politics of agitation will take us nowhere.

SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI, Bureau Chief, Islamabad
Aug 14 - 20, 2006

Some recent political developments in and outside Pakistan have the potential to destabilize the country politically, threatening the pace of economic development. Political stability is the basic requirement for the economic growth and it has been proved beyond any doubt during the last six to seven years.

Even the worst critics of the present government cannot deny the economic turnaround during this period. The most important achievement of the government is a solid pace of economic expansion in an extraordinary environment, underpinned by weaker-than-targeted performance of large-scale manufacturing and robust performance of services. Three or four years of strong economic growth had positioned Pakistan as one of the fastest growing economies in Asian region.

This has been possible, beyond other factors, because of the complete understanding and complementary relationship between the President and the Prime Minster, which we haven't seen before. Although Gen. Musharraf lose no opportunity to demonstrate that he is in the driving seat but he has allowed full freedom to his Prime Minister to work and pursue specially the agenda of economic development and growth. I find it difficult to support a government run by an in-serving military general, but I cannot possibly deny the fact that the present military ruler is the most liberal and tolerant than all the rulers we had in the past, including the democratically elected leaders.

Print and electronic media had never enjoyed the present level of liberty and freedom in the history of Pakistan. One cannot forget the fact that almost all those sitting in London and in the country, who are championing the cause of democracy, have been either a part or ardent supporters of military dictators who ruled Pakistan in the past. It is also an intriguing development as to how these worst enemies of the past have all of sudden become close friends and jointly launched full force campaign against the present military ruler who is not, at least, a dictator by any standard and that too about 1 1/2 years before the general election scheduled in Oct/Nov. 2007.

The political developments during the past six months or so include the signing of Charter of Democracy by the opposition parties, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), the joining of hands by Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) with ARD for a possible no trust vote against Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, simmering dissensions within the King's party and the turmoil caused by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) through its threat to resign from the government.

Not only this, as Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) are moving fast towards a point of no return as far as the prospects of any reconciliation between President Musharraf and them are concerned, the choices for Musharraf-led regime are becoming increasingly narrower. With their respective positions firmly entrenched, President Musharraf is finding himself all the more aligned to the political elements whose support he desperately banked on from the outset. The problem with all the King's parties in the world is that they cling for survival to the tree they are supposed to look after.

As expected, Pakistan Muslim League (PML), led by the Chaudhrys of Gurjat, has become completely dependent for its survival on the uniform of the president instead of providing him a broad political base, at least in Punjab, so that he could win another term in office - the very reason why their faction of PML was shot to power in 2002. While people in PML have fully benefited from their tenure in the government, it is, however, still debatable if they will be able to generate the political support that the president needs to stay in power.

There is a serious dearth of leadership in the country. It cannot be brought home from the incubators of London where it is being nursed under controlled conditions until such time that it may be able to breathe again in the stifled political environment back home. Even if that were to happen, the existing leaders in exile can only fill the political vacuum as a transitory arrangement. In the years they have been away from the country, the electorate, too, has grown in a different direction. It will be hard for both Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif to totally shrug off the baggage of the past - the stigma that they carry as failed elected leaders who were incapable of delivering the goods twice even if they worked hard and kept their hands clean. A new leadership will have to take root in this stifled environment for it to effectively take stock of matters, and steer the polity in the right direction. This may not seem possible under the existing dispensation.

There seems another possibility for this sudden gang up between antagonistic forces, which is being freely discussed in the drawing rooms of Islamabad that the United States has a hand in it. This is no more a secret that the CIA had always played a dubious role in the change of governments in Pakistan. It is being done to Pressurize General Musharraf to strictly follow the US dictates or else he might be removed from power.

Bush needs Musharraf as any ally in the war against terror. But the understanding between the US and Musharraf on the issues of security, especially with reference to Afghanistan and India, has had its share of ups and downs. Only in July this year some analysts were wondering if Pakistan had fallen out of favour with the US for not doing 'enough' to control cross border terrorism. Earlier in March when President Bush visited Pakistan, he emphasized to President Musharraf the need to be more aggressive in the war on terror. Pakistan's claim that it had lost more soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan than the entire NATO coalition had lost did not appeal to the US. Bush had then refused to make the same nuclear deal with Pakistan the US was going to sign with India, saying, "Pakistan and India are different countries with different needs and different histories".

However, on many issues President Musharraf did not follow US dictates. This had led to complaints that "the general was not doing enough". In June this year, the United States reduced its foreign aid to Pakistan from the current fiscal year by $ 250 million. The reasons the US gave were that Islamabad failed to do enough to improve democracy and human rights situation. According to the bill that was passed by the US House of Representatives, the foreign military financing (FMF) funds for Pakistan for 2007 were also dropped to $ 200 million from $300 million. The bill stated that the lack of respect for human rights, especially women's rights, and the lack of progress for improving democratic governance and the rule of law are the reasons for slashing the funds.

The election campaign has already started unannounced and much earlier of the election schedule, making it perhaps the longest poll campaign in the history of Pakistan. The overall context is extremely tense. The West is frightened with the friends of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar because it does not want Mullahs to be in control of the nuclear weapons and support a Taliban-friendly government in Pakistan. Musharraf is afraid of Benzair Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, while the nationalist parties are justifiably frightened of the hegemony of the Punjabi elite. So, what is to be done?

Amid this highly charged atmosphere and the outrageous statements challenging each other by ruling group and the cabined opposition some sane voices are also being heard from some quarters, including retired army generals and former partners of Musharraf government, parliamentarians with independent views and a columnist and a political annalist. Their suggestions and advices for finding a way out from the present impasse can be summarized as follows.

a) A grand dialogue between civil and military leadership to rewrite the working equation to function according the constitutional parameters.

b) Setting up an independent election commission, in consultation with the opposition, far ensuring free and transparent elections in the country as scheduled.

c) Allowing all the exiled leaders to come to Pakistan who should face speedy judicial trial on day to day basis in respect of pending cases against them and participate in the election or otherwise in the light of court verdict.

d) Elections should be held as scheduled in October 2007 under a caretaker government, which should take charge about 3 months before the election date.

e) The constitutional cover for president's uniform (obtained through 17th amendment) will expire in November 2007. President Musharraf should shed his uniform before seeking another term unless his supporters muster two-third majority in the new house to amend the constitution once again to protect him with his uniform.

There are sound suggestions for providing a way out from the present turmoil and should be accepted by all those concerned. The ongoing politics of agitation will take us nowhere. Even if the opposition succeeds in creating a law and order situation forcing Musharraf to leave (apparently an impossibility) some other general would replace him with naked martial law. How is it going to help opposition is a big question?