Tale of two nations: Indian order, Pak disorder
By M J Akbar
The most dangerous kind of lie is the one that has a tiny bit of truth mixed inside. As maxims go, that is not very well known. Liars do not advertise their wares, and the truthful are easily seduced. The broad space between honesty and deception is occupied by the gullible. To prey on the gullible is the politician's art.
Politicians in power have an advantage. They can segue the clout of office with the credibility of the medium to make a sale. The transaction is propelled by a primary rule of advertising: hearing is believing. Shoddy goods are packaged in the glamour of power. There is a catch, though. Those in power lose their capacity to notice when they have become stale, let alone putrid. Asif Zardari has long crossed his sell-by date.
There is a striking, albeit accidental, similarity between Islamabad and New Delhi. Both have governments on their way out without any certainty about what is on the way in. The difference in the transition is the story of the subcontinent.
The process in India is natural, orderly and bubbling with the excitement of many ambitions. Sharad Pawar is quite correct when he says that every political party can have its own candidate for prime minister. There is no divine right in democracy. Pawar is too astute a professional to have made his bid unless he was confident that the present coalition would need radical restructuring, starting from the top. The Congress has said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will continue; Pawar does not think so. Many hearts are beating more quietly, including within the Congress.
The contenders have been encouraged by the sight of NDA dropping a chunk from the side like an iceberg caught in Orissa heat. Every satrap is keeping all options open. Naveen Patnaik may have left the BJP but he has not joined the Congress or the Third Front. Sensible politicians know only one thing, that no one knows what might emerge when the verdict is read out by the greatest jury in the world, the Indian electorate. The array in India is in sharp contrast to the disarray in Pakistan.
Zardari has always used the dangerous lie to great effect. He used it to reach the president's office and then upgraded a non-executive post into an authoritarian outpost. The same tactic was used with Delhi over Mumbai terrorism; a little truth was fed into a massive cover-up to protect the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He bluffed Nawaz Sharif by promising an independent judiciary and then turned judges into a row of poodles on morphine. They obediently dismissed an elected government in Punjab, triggering off the long march of lawyers and opposition parties on Islamabad and the crisis that woke up the only uncle still sending Pakistan Christmas gifts. A phone call from Richard Holbrooke in Washington diluted the crisis by reversing Zardari's orders and castrating his role in government. It also indicated the degree to which Pakistan has compromised its independence. America has become the principal arbiter of its internal affairs.
Leaders depart when their moment is over in any nation, but in a democracy they depart with dignity. Delhi has, in my estimate, the largest collection of ex-prime ministers in the world - and given the likely evolution of politics in the next few years, more are on the way.
It would be dangerous if the victors and losers of the long march forget that the real danger to Pakistan still comes from the short march. The Taliban is only a short march away from Islamabad. The Taliban did not take Afghanistan in one swoop, but city by city. One is not suggesting that Pakistan is as vulnerable as Afghanistan was in the winter of 1994, or that wars between its politicians resemble the pitched battles between the various claimants to Kabul. But the fall of Swat is not a solution; it has become the fortress of a dangerous problem. Shopkeepers in Peshawar selling 'modern' clothes for women have begun to get the message and are fleeing to other cities. But is there sufficient space for retreat? Peshawar is less than 90 minutes from Islamabad.
A compromise that keeps Zardari in office but out of power is the application of a band-aid when the disease is cancer. Power abhors a vacuum. If it has left Zardari's grasp, then it can only gravitate back to where it has always been more comfortable: in Army headquarters.
Appeared in Times of India - March 15, 2009