Monday, September 27, 2010

Talking about change By Cyril Almeida

Hold on to your hats, everybody, change is a coming. It’s the consensus in Islamabad: change is in the air and it will be very bad for Zardari & co and marginally good for the rest of us.

But Islamabad is a funny old town. The more convinced everyone is something is about to happen, the less likely something will in fact happen.

First things first: things are bad in Pakistan. The economy is a mess, the security situation is tenuous and governance is beside the point for the government. Some of the problems may be structural but try telling that to poor, hungry, unemployed people with no electricity or gas, rudimentary health and education facilities and little by way of protection from the police or the lower judiciary. And that was before the floods.

In any case, when you have a chateau-owning political dilettante with sticky fingers and a perma-grin, why bother looking beyond him for systemic reasons and explanations? Out with him, in with something, anything else — it’s simple, visceral, enough for anyone to latch on to as their mantra.

So, much of the talk about a change in Islamabad wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the genuine grassroots unhappiness with the government’s style and substance.

Onwards, then, to the next step: that little business about change itself. Here’s where things, predictably, become complicated.

The PML-N has the only shot at constitutional, working-within-the-system change: forcing a mid-term election. But even before all that talk of a need to kiss-and-make-up with the MQM and wean the independents away from the government to get the no-confidence motion that would trigger an election, there’s a simple problem: Mian Sahib appears content for the time being to let the government sink further on its own. Possibly, the thinking could be, why try and choke a drowning man?

Which is why the talk of ‘change’ is so vague and conspiratorial — there’s no firm peg to hang it on. But it is real, and it has got the government circles unsettled. Where could this much touted change come from?

A coup? Scratch that. The Indispensable has carefully rehabilitated the image of his beloved institution, to the point where the ostensibly apolitical general is being urged to clean up politics. (Must we never learn?) But there’s little incentive for the Indispensable.

He controls what he cares about most: foreign policy and national security. His budget will remain largely untouched. And he knows there is no silver bullet to all that ails Pakistan; in fact, that is a challenge possibly greater than Hercules’s twelve Labours, and no Hercules is the Indispensable.

A ‘soft’ coup? A judiciary-military combine to nudge out the dirty politicians through a quasi-legal disqualification route perhaps? The problem: holding hands with an army chief may be a bit too much for the born-again independent jurist CJ Iftikhar to swallow.Work your way down the list of ‘options’ — a quick job given the paucity of said ‘options’ — and you can’t help but scratch your head. An apocryphal tale has it that one of Zardari’s advisers once mockingly boasted, “They want him out, but how are they going to do it?” (Add necessary colour to aforementioned comment.) Like it or not, the logic is sound.

So why then do the rumours refuse to die down? And what’s with all the defiant statements by the government, betraying more than a hint of uncertainty, if not panic?

This much is clear: lots of very important and powerful people don’t care very much for the present government, or more specifically Zardari and his buddies. Some of those important and powerful people would rather be rid of what they see as an aberration, even by Pakistani standards; others are content to let the government shoot itself in the foot, and hopefully elsewhere, because the cost of ousting them isn’t worth it.

Combine the public’s unhappiness with the elite’s dislike and it becomes clear why rumour and speculation continue to swirl around the government. This time, though, there appears to be something more at work.

Think of it this way. If a kid asks Santa Claus for a bicycle but finds only a pair of socks under the tree come Christmas Day, the kid will be pretty disappointed. But politics isn’t always so straightforward: sometimes you demand the head when a strip of flesh will suffice because the former is the only way of getting the latter.

If the goal is in fact to oust Zardari, then all the talk of ‘change’ isn’t likely to change anything until kingdom come, or certainly until September 2013, which is when Zardari’s term expires.

But if the goal is to get rid of some of the water bugs (thank you, Bob Woodward, for that wonderful euphemism) crawling around their protector Zardari then the ‘change is in the air’ drumbeat is slightly more likely to yield some kind of result.

After all, a few key ministries reshuffled, a few advisers axed and a few of the greasier characters cut loose and the governance crisis could ease up. If nothing else, some of the structural problems in the economy could finally be tackled — giving fewer sleepless nights to the uniforms armed with calculators and big dreams.

Sometimes you need the threat of the bogeyman to get obstinate kids to behave. Threaten some vague but ominous sounding ‘change’ and hope that the worst offenders will at least temporarily shape up and behave.

The problem with the approach? Zardari. He’s about as likely to do something at the behest of his enemies and critics as he is to produce evidence of his chateau being a generation-old family property. The more he is squeezed, the more he will baulk at doing what’s necessary — even if he would have done it anyway.

And since there’s no fait accompli to present him with this time (like there was at the time of the Long March and the failed attempt to take over in Punjab) and there’s little to no leverage against him available (ousting him is too costly), Zardari can afford to dig in his heels.

Still believe change is really in the air?

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