By Zubeida Mustafa
PAKISTAN’S political leaders, it appears, can show a semblance of unity only in the face of adversity. Nothing else concentrates their minds better than the fear of a military leader or a political opponent entrenching himself indefinitely in office. They are then prepared to sink their differences — but only to an extent — and join hands to overthrow him.
It was this common purpose that brought the leaders of 37 opposition parties to London to attend the conference convened by the exiled Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader, Nawaz Sharif, over the weekend.
This is not the first time that opposition parties in Pakistan — so disparate ideologically and usually at each other’s throats — have joined hands in a bid to unseat an army general or a strong and popular political leader. This phenomenon is indicative of the fragmentation of Pakistan’s politics where parties split at the drop of a hat and where one party has multiple namesakes with an initial added to identify them.
The elaborate meeting conducted in London with great decorum brought with it a sense of déjà vu. Such political alignments to forge united fronts against a strong leader have been a familiar feature of Pakistan’s politics. Remember 1968, 1977, 1983, 1988 and now today when a diverse array of squabbling parties seemingly set aside their differences to come together to challenge a strong leader.
Unfortunately, they never succeeded in the past and in the case of a uniformed leader when the day of deliverance did come the factors proved to be something other than the alliance that had been formed.
In 1969, the unseating of Ayub Khan was on account of a palace coup while his successor, another army general, Yahya Khan, was forced by his colleagues in the armed forces to step down in 1971 on account of the ignominy of defeat suffered in East Pakistan at the hands of India. Ziaul Haq departed in a mysterious air crash that was not the job of any grand alliance. Civilian leaders have been toppled invariably by military intervention and not through an honest political process.
Given the past performance of our political parties, not surprisingly few hopes were pinned on the London gathering. It was widely expected that there would be a lot of loud talk of sound political principles and high moral grounds but no tangible plan of action would materialise.
This has proved to be true. All the right things have been said, though not always by consensus. Some parties expressed reservations on issues that were then cloaked in ambiguity to give the appearance of a consensus having been arrived at.
The APC declaration includes the mention of “carrying on the struggle within and outside the parliament for the restoration of the 1973 Constitution as on October 12, 1999.” But some changes introduced by General Musharraf, such as lowering the voting age, enhancing the numbers of assembly seats and reserved seats and reverting to joint electorate, are to be retained, the reservations expressed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the JUI chief, notwithstanding.
There is also the demand for the “immediate resignation of General Musharraf to pave the way for the holding of fair and free elections.” The commitment has been expressed to struggle for the formation of a caretaker government, repeal of discriminatory election laws, appointment of a neutral election commissioner and the dissolution of the local bodies. But the parties did not spell out the strategy they planned to adopt for the achievement of their goals.This is understandable. At this stage, no party can afford to show that the APC had failed and not enough homework had been done to bridge the differences in the thinking of various parties to find a minimum ground of agreement. Hence they were careful not to touch issues which could have caused the façade of unity to crack. Nothing would have boosted the military regime’s standing more.
At the moment, the dissenting note has come from the Pakistan People’s Party, whose leader Benazir Bhutto did not attend the conference although she was present in the British capital. Makhdoom Amin Fahim led the PPP’s delegation but was in touch with Ms Bhutto when sensitive decisions had to be taken.
This definitely conveyed a message to the others that the party with the largest vote bank would prefer to discreetly distance itself from all the items on the agenda of the APC.
The failure of the conference to adopt a clear cut strategy was largely on account of the PPP having its own political agenda. Rumours have been doing the rounds for the past several months of a PPP-Musharraf deal being on the cards. Benazir Bhutto has been fudging words in an unconvincing attempt to deny the rumours.
Hence would one be surprised that there was no consensus on issues such as resigning from the legislatures if President Musharraf tried to seek election from the incumbent assemblies? The decision on the line to be adopted if this eventuality actually occurs was left to the future — “through a consensus collective action, including the option of resignations from the parliament and the provincial assemblies.”
When the APC is seen against this backdrop, one can understand why no roadmap indicating deadlines and milestones was worked out. Neither could the participants draw up a plan of action spelling out measures to be adopted by them. In other words, the London moot has proved to be a grand declaration of noble intentions and no more.
Nothing can be said at this stage what course politics will take in Pakistan in the coming months. With so many dramatic events taking place at the same time in Islamabad — notably the judicial crisis and the Lal Masjid episode — the APC and its decisions seem to be the least significant in determining the shape of things to come.