Let us hope – and I am sincere in this expectation – that Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s Washington yatra will make the present government more confident in setting its direction and in lifting, somewhat, the spirits of the nation. We are, at this time, desperately seeking hope in the survival of the present arrangement.
Let us also hope that the incoming prime minister of Pakistan can speak to the outgoing American administration with more confidence and coherence than he had ‘addressed’ the nation. Gilani’s performance will be very much in focus during the next few days because of the media splash that such a visit is bound to make. Traditionally, our leaders have toured abroad to perk up their image in the country. Will Gilani be able to use this opportunity for some kind of damage control?
He has certainly tried to place himself at the centre of the stage with a meeting with editors and senior journalists in Islamabad on Friday. In reports published on Saturday, he has been quoted as saying that he was not a powerless prime minister. He also asserted, with whatever credence, that Asif Ali Zardari was only the leader of the ruling party and was not interfering in the affairs of the government.
Personally, I do regret to have to project my disillusionment with the prevailing state of affairs, week after week. Irrespective of what the top functionaries of the government have to say in their more than frequent encounters with the media, it is hard to disengage yourself with the popular mood. Conscious attempts to be objective and, at the same time, to retain that inherent partisanship with the party that is leading the so-called coalition have not been able to suppress or camouflage an emotional anguish about the national drift.
While we wait to see if Gilani’s visit can cheer us up to some extent, there are apprehensions about what would transpire in the prime minister’s meeting with Nawaz Sharif in London, en route to Washington. Obviously, the issue of the restoration of the judges has cast a deep shadow on the solidarity of the alliance that had initially put us in buoyant mood. It did seem too good to be real – and events, unfortunately, have validated our worst fears. What had Zardari to do about this affair of the government?
We know America’s concerns about the situation in the tribal area but official statements emanating from the White House for public consumption are expected to be supportive of the PPP-led government. Commentaries sent by our media representatives that are based in Washington suggest strong US endorsement for the present democratic setup in Pakistan. There may also be hints that the Bush administration’s long-lasting patronage of Musharraf has weakened.
Still, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while in Australia, repeated on Friday that Pakistan needs to do more to help curb the flow of militants across into Afghanistan. This confirms the thought that the situation in FATA would be on top of the agenda of talks. Incidentally, the present government, during the four months of its tenure, has not been able to contain the surge of the Taliban and there have been some scary reports of how we may lose the Frontier province if the present trends continue.
One explanation is that the integrity of the state is at stake because the establishment has been pursuing America’s war on terror. But our rulers have continually asserted that this is not a proxy war. We are in it for our own sake. In any case, the entire operation appears to be jinxed. And this causes the most severe anxiety about the present drift in the minds of moderate and liberal elements in the country, the same segments of population that have traditionally supported the PPP and also the ANP that leads the NWFP government.
This brings me back to the overall gloom that engulfs us at this time. As I have said, it becomes difficult to be upbeat about the performance of the PPP-led government. Until some weeks ago, I used to be mildly chastised by some friends and ‘fellow travellers’ for being unduly critical of a government that has to steer through a minefield of problems. They would explain to me the dictates of the realpolitik.
I concede that the challenges this government confronts are frightening and that it has assumed charge at a critical hour. It deserves sympathy and support. But a time of crisis demands resolute action and it can, proverbially, be an opportunity. There is no point in recalling how Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was able to mobilise the people and give them hope at the darkest hour in our history. The pace at which he moved after December 20, 1971, was astounding. For instance, his federal cabinet was sworn in at two in the morning. His impromptu address to the nation the night he took over had a dramatic impact on the morale of a defeated country.
I can refer to many friendly conversations that I have had on this issue but this space would not allow it. I also receive a number of e-mails on my columns and I am sometimes inclined to respond to a few of them. There was this message from Bilal Qureshi from Washington D.C. whom I do not know. He was responding to my column on the 100 days of this government and suggested that one should not “paint too bleak a picture to destroy public confidence and morale”. He did not ask me to not demand answers but to be patient. “I am requesting caution, not censor”, he wrote.
We had an interesting exchange of e-mails and discovered agreement on a number of issues, though I was saddened by his opinion on the lawyers’ movement. What had worried him was the “drip drip effect”. He added: “In other words, the chorus of failure about the current government is only going to get louder …. and the entire setup might collapse, paving the way, once again, for a saviour. God help us if we have to go through that dark tunnel again”. Very logical, isn’t it?
In any case, after a subsequent column, he wrote: “I can’t help but agree with you, entirely. In fact, I am terribly conflicted because I want this government to succeed, even though it is far from perfect. On the other hand, I can also see things spiralling out of control”.
Finally, this excerpt from Bilal’s comments on Gilani’s address to the nation: “It would be the biggest understatement of the week to suggest that the Prime Minister Gilani’s speech was a disappointment. No, it was actually a disaster, let’s be honest about it”.
Let us pray that Gilani can do better in Washington and our expatriates there, like Bilal, have something to at least smile about.