Movement in the offing?
Although the opposition rally from parliament after a walkout from the National Assembly (NA) to the Presidency proved a damp squib, there is little room for complacency on the part of the government. The sit-in in front of the Presidency only managed to mobilise over a 100 members of the NA and Senate, most of them belonging to the main opposition party, the PML-N. Smaller opposition parties attended thinly or were conspicuous by their absence. The conjuror’s trick of once again inducting the MQM and mollifying the PML-Q to stay in the coalition just a day before may have acted as a dampener. However, government complacency on this account can only be described as breathtaking, since there is an obvious inability to see the storm clouds gathering. The prime minister vociferously defends the president for his voluntary surrender of presidential powers accumulated under military dictators and praises him for the ‘restoration’ of the 1973 constitution, while baiting the opposition to bring a no-confidence motion if they dare. Naturally the prime minister feels on solid ground here, as the opposition does not have the numbers for such a move to succeed. And if the relatively modest opposition show at the Presidency is taken as proof positive that all is smooth sailing for the incumbents, this may be the familiar phenomenon of blinkered vision in self-interest.
The fact is that, modest or not, if the opposition’s sit-in is the sign of a shift from opposition inside parliament (with which the opposition seems clearly to have got frustrated since it does not seem to have had any effect) to the street, it may be time for the incumbents to sit up and take notice since there is a plethora of issues on which, arguably, the opposition could hang its campaign. The recent load shedding riots may be a sign of things to come as a miserable citizenry responds to calls for ‘direct’ action. For the opposition, opportunity begs in the list of obvious public grievances, as much as in the list it has so far ignored. Amongst the former are load shedding, the absence of governance (including the continuing plight of natural disaster victims, past and present), corruption, law and order, etc. Conspicuous because of their absence from the opposition’s demands are the major issues of terrorism (on which the PML-N stands compromised), unemployment, inflation, etc, i.e. the issues of immediate and long term concern in the daily grind for survival of the vast majority of citizens. Unless the opposition sheds its conservatism on these latter issues and addresses the vital problems afflicting the masses, it may not find more than a passing response from the people.
Does this mean the complacency of the government is justified? They may have the parliamentary front buttoned up, but the performance of parliament over the last three and a half years is hardly inspiring. There is a lava of discontent bubbling under the surface on the streets and in the villages. A defence that constantly invokes past mistakes and misdemeanours is inevitably wearing thin. The people want results, first and foremost a vision and policy framework that promises relief and a future. Both are conspicuous by their absence. The team leading the coalition government suffers on account of incompetence, at whose heart lies cronyism.
The vacuum of leadership at the heart of Pakistan’s politics therefore seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. However, it would be a mistake to rest sanguine in the face of spontaneous outbursts of protest, which seem more and more likely. Whether these can lead to a ‘Pakistani Spring’ and throw up a fresh leadership able to inspire the people with a vision that departs from business as usual remains an open question, but not one that the incumbents can casually dismiss without running the risk of being overtaken by history. Of course, recourse to any extra-constitutional or praetorian intervention is a tired idea whose track record should serve as a cautionary tale. But the country’s state and trajectory has put the question of who will lead Pakistan out of its present morass once again centre-stage.