Is there smoke yet?


As much as the Catholic faithful flock to the Vatican to see smoke appearing from the chimney signifying that the closetted college of cardinals had finally agreed upon the new Pope, the people of Pakistan have been anxiously looking at the skies over Islamabad for a sign that our new political messiah may have been chosen. Since our version of the college of cardinals is the periodical Corps Commander’s Conference, should the people be looking at Rawalpindi skies? The last time smoke appeared over GHQ it was one of the stationery stores catching fire. With Ramazan less than a week away, the appearance of the PM could be subject to the disappearance of the moon. Since late night on Oct 10, the nation has been waiting anxiously for a PM, they might as well be waiting for Godot. The only person at the moment nominated as PM éto-be by any political grouping, Maulana Fazlur Rahman (by MMA), is not likely by any long shot to be PM, by the time the Nov 1 date mandated for transferring power has come around, we have just about completed the elections to the women’s reserved seats. With National Assembly now scheduled to meet on Nov 6, transfer of power is to be completed by Nov 14. The schedule given is the best time and space adjustment in the circumstances, in contrast the Brazilian President-elect Lula will have to wait two months till Jan 1, 2003 for his inauguration.

Going by the bean counter on elected representatives, NWFP will have a MMA government on its own while in the Punjab PML (Q) has a similar mandate. In Balochistan, there are various permutations and combinations but the elected representatives are increasingly leaning towards a PML (Q)-led virtual pot-pourri of parties. PPP-P secured the largest number of seats in Sindh but it is highly unlikely that they will come to an agreement with the second largest Party MQM. While any Federal Government would normally not have problems with opposition governments in NWFP and Balochistan, history has shown that for a Federal Government to function effectively, both Punjab and Sindh are crucial. In the present circumstances availing on our western borders, both NWFP and Balochistan have become important, if not crucial to a stable government in the Center. The bottom line is that Islamabad can live with MMA’s Akram Durrani as CM in NWFP, even if MMA does not join the Federal coalition but it needs to have both MMA and MQM in the fold to counter PPP-P’s formation of the Sindh Provincial Government. While the MMA has done reasonably well as a united entity, always a consummate politician, Ms Benazir threw a spanner in their works by stoking the ambitions of the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Foreign Relations during her reign, Maulana Fazlur Rahman. Maulana Sahib was putty in her hands the last time around, and continues to respond to her even this time around. If Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani had not acted fast, the MMA would have disintegrated, they pre-empted Mohtrama and bought unity (and time) by naming the JUI (F) chief as the MMA’s candidate for PM. While one believes that it is the PML (Q)’s right to nominate a PM and can understand that the PPP-P as the second largest Party having a claim of sorts, MMA’s claim is ludicrous if not outright ridiculous.

With the results of the women’s reserved seats almost complete, the situation is that PML (Q) can make the Federal Government in coalition with MQM and the National Alliance, without the MMA and the PPP-P. While the PPP-P has moved fast to pre-empt a “forward bloc” forming around Punjab’s Faisal Saleh Hayat by naming Makhdoom Amin Fahim as the Parliamentary leader, it is quite possible that a sizable group of PPP-P elected legislators may join the Federal Coalition, that will make the Federal Government far more stable. With that possibility PPP may find itself out in the cold in Sindh. While the second largest party MQM will then have a right to name the CM, in their case former Chief Secretary Sindh, Sardar Ahmed, the MQM may well decide for the sake of Provincial unity between ethnic and new-Sindhis to give the privilege to Arbab Ghulam Rahim of the Sindh Democratic Alliance.

The persons who have emerged as the most potent political strategists out of the recent elections are Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain of PML (Q) and Qazi Hussain Ahmed of MMA. Having been frustrated badly by the Sharif’s penchant of not allowing anyone outside the family to come forth for a decade or so despite unstinting support to them, he did the practical thing by siding with the military regime, and has been amply rewarded for his political pragmatism. His cousin, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi who was to become the PML (Q) CM Punjab in 1997, has now become the PML (Q) unanimously elected nominee in 2002, better late than never. Knowing his own shortcomings at the international stage, Ch Shujaat has deliberately chosen to avoid being a candidate for PM. While keeping his power base in Punjab in his own firm hands, his public lack of ambition has been very helpful in his being nominated by PML (Q) to be their point person in negotiations with other parties. In similar manner, Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s opting for a backseat has kept the MMA together, while he remains more equal than others in calling the shots behind the scenes. The most likely coalition to go asunder will be the MMA, Qazi Sahib will have to pull all the tricks out of the bag to keep the Mullahs together.

The two people who matter most now politically are thus the two who have sacrificed their ambitions to become PM for a greater cause. Realizing their own limitations and the need to preserve unity, they have shown that politics in Pakistan is not all about self. Whatever one may say and whoever represents them, the ball is firmly between Ch Shujaat Hussain and Qazi Hussain Ahmed. Ch Shujaat knows PML (Q) can go it alone and make a government in the Centre, Punjab, Balochistan, and even maybe Sindh without the MMA. Qazi Hussain Ahmad must have done his numbers and knows it too. On the other hand, Qazi Hussain Ahmad knows that the MMA government in NWFP will be hamstrung if MMA is not in the Centre coalition. He knows PML (Q) will not part with sensitive Federal ministries either. So either he will accept what PML (Q) is offering the MMA, the Speaker’s slot in the National Assembly for support for the PML (Q) for the Senate Chairman. Either the MMA can join the Federal Government and take ministries like Communications (and Railways), Religious Affairs, Health, etc or support the government in the National Assembly while staying out of government. If that happens PPP-P is out in the cold and a forward bloc will then only be a matter of time.

Zafarullah Jamali of Balochistan seems most likely to be the PM, even though Punjab’s Khurshid Kasuri and Humayun Akhtar cannot be counted out contenders. Aftab Ahmad Sherpao can also spring a surprise. One level below the political maneuvering of Ch Shujaat and Qazi Hussain Ahmad, his political ploys have turned out fairly well, he would be the ideal compromise in the circumstances. And what about Farooq Leghari? His hat is still in the ring and for our college of cardinals he must be occupying a higher, if not equal, pedestal than those aforementioned.

When the Germans realized they could not hold Paris against the Allied onslaught during World War 2 Hitler gave orders to raze the city to the ground. Repeatedly the German Commander in Paris was asked “Is Paris Burning?”, in French “Paris brule-t-elle?”. For want of better understanding of what is happening, we might as well try French “est-ce qu’ill y a encore de la fumee?” in asking “is there smoke yet?”. Maybe we can’t see it as yet but one can smell the smoke in the air.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).