We all know that the White House basement, besides providing tight spaces for forlorn interns, also houses a Situation Room. Important national security decisions are taken there, both during times of war and peace. In movies, the seclusion and darkness of simulated Situation Rooms emphasize the gravity of the decisions taken there. It’s a tough place to be in, and tough calls are made in it.
So far, we know little about the existence of such a room in the Raiwind Estate of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, nor do we know that President Asif Ali Zardari uses such a space in the Aiwan-e-Sadr. What we do know is that Sharif’s housing unit in his estate is referred to as ‘the PM house’ (which says quite a bit about his facilities for nomenclature), and Zardari takes long walks in the Aiwaan with the Army Chief (evidently, these walks have become less frequent of late). But there is little doubt that now that the Long March is over, new battle lines are being drawn between the PPP and the PML-N. Somewhere in Raiwind and Islamabad, both parties are assessing plans of action in their own Situation Rooms. Of course, the exact location of such planning meetings remains classified, but we can assess what is going on in them.
It seems that Sharif is now setting his eyes on the final dissolution of the 17th Amendment (which, it should be recalled, is a Musharraf era legislation that firmly entrenched the Presidency with the power to dissolve Parliament through Article 58-2(B). On Wednesday, the PML-N leader (who, interestingly enough, received a ‘congratulatory’ phone call from the President of Turkey, Mr. Abdullah Gul, who also belongs to a conservative party with Islamist roots) summarized the Long March as an example of ‘people power’, but he went on to warn the such power will also come into play in the future. He went on to express confidence in his relationship with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for resolving this issue, but was ominously silent on acknowledging the President (not even for the ‘reciprocity’ he has shown via the notification for the restoration of the judiciary).
In this new face-off that is now developing (which is also linked to what is looking like a power struggle for the Punjab), Sharif has made another important advance. Seemingly as reference to future political allies, he went on to say that his N-League will not “leave” those who stood with him in “testing times”. This rather fraternal pledge could have been aimed at the PML-Q forward block that aligned itself with his party after Salman Taseer, the Presidential point-man (or, as the Sharifs claim, hit-man) in the province implemented Governor’s Rule there in February. It could also be aimed as support for the Prime Minister, who, according to the that unconventional oracle of Pakistan politics, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, is going to be the next “target” of President Zardari’s “anger” (Ahmad went on to stake his claim by saying that the President has the backing of his allies in government, but the Prime Minister has the might of the Sharifs and “other forces” behind him).
Ostensibly, Governor Salman Taseer had his bit to say as well. He ‘felicitated’ the former Prime Minister on the restoration of the judiciary, and promised to lift Governor’s Rule as soon as the PML-N showed a majority in the legislature. But, he warned if ‘horse-trading’, the venal art of Pakistani politics that relies on ‘buying out’ opponents and converting them into allies continues, he would dissolve parliament. Tough words from a man who the grapevine says is on the inevitable path certain Zardarists are on: the way out.
Meanwhile, the game the Presidency is playing is turning out to be an interesting one as well. The big news on Wednesday were reports of a meeting between the Chaudhry brothers and Zardari. Sources cited claimed an “important development” had been made regarding the future set up of the Punjab, and a “formula” will be established soon in this connection. This is hardly surprising. The Chaudhrys, though they deny it, have been waiting in the wings during the last year for what was predictably on its way: the breakdown of the N-League and PPP alliance in the legislature of the country’s largest province. Not news either is that this “formula”, if and when it is announced, will probably feature the notorious scion of Gujrat, Monis Elahi, in a prominent post in the provincial administration run jointly between these two parties. But soon after the word of the meeting was out, that old Q-League stalwart, Hamid Nasir Chatta, shook the foundations of a possible Zardari-Chaudhry alliance by announcing that the latter had no “mandate” to deal with the former; that several of his party’s senior members are “not interested” in dealing with the PPP, and that they would have to be taken on board by party chiefs before any decision about the future of the Punjab was made.
Is Mr Chatta genuinely disaffected? Is he actually threatening the Chaudhrys with a Q-League fissure as they wheel and deal future alliances with the Presidency by insuring the advancement of their own dynasty, or is he actually providing a smoke-screen for what is effectively a done deal? What about the Prime Minister? Is the political cover that he is being provided by the Sharifs and “other forces”, along with the extra attention he is getting from some sections of the press actually going to be his downfall vis a vis his party’s boss, or will he stand tall (he has gone public several times by chastising the 17th Amendment)? And what about the boss himself? Is he going to take more incoming pressure as the Sharifs are promising, this time regarding the clipping of his own powers through the legislation of a possible 18th Amendment, or is he going to rely once again on the power of the omnipresent ‘deal’, considering there are options out there who are willing to play ball with him? There are many doubts, except one: new battle lines have been drawn. The lawyers and judges have got what they wanted, but now it’s time for the politicians to play their natural game. The quest for power in the Islamic Republic continues.
(The writer is an anchor/producer at DawnNews TV, Pakistan.)