The country faces an extraordinary situation. No one trusts its top political leadership. The print and electronic media is in overdrive to give it a bad name and some commentators are leading the onslaught against President Zardari. The politics of negativism is gaining ascendancy. The media no doubt are justified in criticising some of his actions, but it has personalised the issue and brought in lot of subjectivity and emotion. President Zardari is stonewalling the criticism by ignoring it, not realising that it creates despondency among the public.
Clearly, Nawaz Sharif has gained a lot in popular standing but is not in a position to challenge Zardari for a show-down. The PML (N) realises that any attempt on their part to dislodge the government will undermine the system and encourage the army to reassert politically. Nawaz Sharif is also aware of the sensitivities of the smaller provinces as any move on his part to destabilise the government could be perceived as an attempt by “Punjab-military axis” to deny smaller provinces their right to being equal partners in the federation.
The army has learnt its lesson that military take-overs have cost the army and the country heavily. Its extensive involvement in counterinsurgency operations and the fact that militants will be emboldened if the army assumes political control is a major deterrent against any adventurism. Foreign countries, especially the US and the western powers, will react strongly to military rule and Pakistan’s isolation will increase manifold. At the domestic level the judiciary will not provide the usual legal cover. Moreover, General Kayani would like to stay away from political power. This however, does not imply that the military will be indifferent to widespread corruption and a deteriorating law and order situation.
Similarly, it would be imprudent on part of President Zardari to take Washington for granted. The United States is investing heavily in terms of financial assistance, political capital and military resources and will not tolerate the squandering away of its assistance to bad governance and massive corruption. President Zardari is well advised to draw lessons from how Karzai brought Afghanistan on the brink of a chasm and his own reputation to an all-time low. The fight against Taliban has been the first casualty of the inept handling by Karzai.
If the president will not make a serious effort to improve his reputation by countering rumours of corruption, they will stick and largely neutralise the benefits of US assistance and goodwill. Above all, it will be sad if Pakistan once again misses this great historic opportunity by failing to capitalise on the prevailing international goodwill.
It is also true that cynicism, prejudices and a simplistic black and white approach towards issues blinds us from seeing the positive side of our leaders. Surprisingly, in many areas, the president’s instincts are right. His unambiguous and categorical stand on terrorism and extremism, support to the military in counter-insurgency operations and the desire to promote good relations with India and Afghanistan must be given credit.
President Zardari’s visits to China every quarter have been a subject of ridicule. But again, if seen in the context of China as an ascending global economic and military power, developing multi-faceted economic and strategic linkages with it could be extremely rewarding. One can surely fault him for micro-managing some of the business transactions which is not his job. He should be giving general direction and then leave the implementation to the relevant functionaries. There is a growing demand on him to conduct the affairs of the state in a more transparent manner and invoke institutional accountability all around to improve his credibility.
His idea to have the “Friends of Pakistan” forum can turn out to be a useful instrument for the assembled countries to assist Pakistan. The country needs political support and economic assistance, and this is an excellent platform for doing the same.
The president should, however, know that it is not enough to have good instincts unless they are matched by a coherent vision. He needs to translate his instincts into an overarching vision and then market it to the nation. His working mostly outside the normal institutional framework of the government does not help in improving his credibility or the image of the country. The indictment of Transparency International coinciding with the “Friends of Pakistan” meeting will only reinforce the apprehensions that our leaders are engaged in personal aggrandisement and personal vanity.
It is fleeting moment and we have to use it to the best advantage by engaging in nation-building tasks. President Zardari and the current leadership will be judged by the people only by these criteria.