More fairly tales from the gossip front
DEMOCRACY suit Pakistan? Not as much as gossip and conspiracy. The land of perpetual rumour, that’s the Islamic Republic: one rumour scarcely subsiding before another sets the gossip mills working again, generating the same heat and passion.
Remember Memogate? The heavens were supposed to open up. The trail was all set to lead to the Presidency and mighty changes were foretold. Even those who should have had their senses about them lost the plot and waded in. But when the sounds of the initial martial music died down the expected bang was little more than a whimper.
As the Supreme Court (SC) had taken up Memogate with great aplomb, the whimper might have induced some embarrassment.
Now Islamabad’s chattering classes, no end to their excitement, are in the grip of a different set of rumours. A petition before the Islamabad High Court is calling into question the extension in service so generously granted to Gen K two years ago by the smartest politician this side of Suez, perhaps even further beyond, the president of the fictional percentages. In these more entrepreneurial times, what is ten percent between friends?
A single member judge had not accepted this petition for hearing – surely a prudent my lord. But after an intracourt appeal, a division bench has admitted it, setting the rumour mills wildly churning. The lawyer behind the petition, a retired colonel, formerly of General Headquarters’ legal wing, says the extension is against the law and vows to pursue the matter even unto the SC. Surely, a foolhardy ex colonel.
In happier times all rumour trails led to GHQ or ISI. Now some see half of them leading to the august chambers of the SC, their lordships performing the labours of Hercules as they go about setting things right. Visible to some who claim to have right spectacles, a power shift has taken place in Islamabad, the superior judiciary spreading its wings and giving every appearance of assuming in crucial respects the role of the executive.
Who cares about the executive? But the same cannot be said of the General Staff when the General Staff is shown to be unhappy. Its discontent is written all over the recent press release from ISPR, the army’s public relations wing, the warning pretty subtle and delicate but coming across unmistakably in that one phrase “...trying to assume more than one’s role will set us back.”
Pray, whom does this barb fit? Not the president who has turned survival into an art form and is content with that. Not the prime minister who considers himself lucky the way he is. Not Parliament which huffs and puffs about sovereignty but is reconciled to its status as leading national debating society... some pomp and pageant, not too much, no power and responsibility. Not GHQ which would have had no reason to issue a warning if it were grabbing more authority. If the warning comes close to anyone it is to their honourable lordships.
Foolish the innocent souls who thought the General Staff was worried by the strictures passed against Gen Beg and Lt Gen Durrani in the Asghar Khan case. Retired generals and spent cartridges: not much difference between them. Gen Yahya was dubbed a usurper by the SC after the 1971 war, that too when he was safely out of office. The army lost no sleep over that.
The past is another matter; it is the present which counts. Calling into question the extension credentials of the victor of Swat, the generalissimo of the western marches, this is serious stuff. How dare anyone do that? To horse then and let the bugles be sounded.
To my untrained eyes this is what it looks like. And in Islamabad I have heard talk of a judicial reference being made ready. Pushed by whom? I ask. Answers not very clear but no shortage of swearing and desk-thumping to drive home the point that ‘they’, and a quick swipe at the shoulders to indicate who ‘they’ are, had seen red, convinced that a line had been crossed.
“Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” cried Henry Second and his barons took care of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. This seems to be the growing sentiment in Islamabad: how do we get rid of meddlesome priests?
Their lordships were on safe ground when dealing only with the hapless PPP government. What could Zardari do? Nothing. Malik Riaz of Bahria Town, somebody’s secret weapon, came out with embarrassing disclosures regarding Arsalan Iftikhar’s financial dealings... a great deal of money changing hands. But even this assault was parried, at least for the time being, by a lengthening of judicial procedure. A one- man judicial commission to probe these charges... even certified simpletons would have a hard time being taken in by this.
All this was fine. But by intruding into military ground that cardinal error is being committed of which Napoleon was guilty in his time and Hitler in his: opening too many fronts at the same time. Zardari alone of no account but Zardari plus Malik Riaz plus the General Staff and we are speaking of a formidable coalition.
This at a time when one’s own bosom is none too clean, Arsalan the fly in the ointment. Is stained credibility any kind of armour to wear in the field? And Malik Riaz again seems to have a bounce in his step. Looking defeated some time back, he returns to the fray with renewed confidence. Who’s given him his vitamin shots?
So do what do the skittish pundits say? That this uncertainty will lead to turmoil, judicial references and lawyers’ marches, and more dirt flying around. Add to this the turmoil in Balochistan and the turbulence in Karachi and this becomes a situation tailor-made for heavenly intervention. The prospect that this unfolds: great disorder under the heavens and an excellent situation.
Excellent for whom? Not elections surely. The first chance in 65 years – the sum-total of Pakistani existence – and our governing classes on the way to fluffing it. In war and peace all other factors are of no avail if luck be missing. I am sure we have a lucky star somewhere but it seems to be remarkably well hidden.
None of this should be taken too seriously: fairy tales, as I said, from the gossip front and our chattering classes never seem to stop chattering. Maybe we are on course for our rendezvous with stable democracy and our first democratic transition. Maybe. Meanwhile arrogance, formerly in military uniform, now marches in the civilian camouflage and the meaning of moderation is lost.