Rock and a hard place

M.J. Akbar / 25 June 2012

To lose one Prime Minister might be considered a misfortune, but to lose two in a week seems distinctly like carelessness.
It may be that in the gung-ho, back-slapping atmosphere of Pakistan President Asif Zardariís drawing room, no one actually reads a CV before sending a chap to go off and take his oath of office as Prime Minister. It is possible that memory itself has been banished from discourse around President Asif Zardari, since it can be inconvenient, and churn up all sorts of accusations of corruption. Bad news is always a casualty in the durbari culture of the subcontinent, whether the durbar be in Islamabad or New Delhi.
A week is famously a long time in politics; but this was surely the longest week in Pakistanís democracy. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani lost his job because he refused to obey a Supreme Court order to investigate a dormant corruption case against Zardari. On Thursday, Makhdoom Shahabuddin filed his nomination papers for the coveted job. If Brigadier Fahim Ahmed Khan, regional director of the Anti-Narcotics Force, was surprised he kept his reaction to himself.
Within hours this Army officer went to a magistrateís court and obtained a non-bailable arrest warrant in a Rs7 billion scam case involving production of illegal drugs, registered on October 10 last year. If Zardari had persisted, Prime Minister Shahabuddin would have been receiving congratulations from Dr Manmohan Singh in a slightly unusual office.
Enter, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. Perhaps they all shrugged when they looked at his personal baggage. His nickname is ĎRental Rajaí. He has been accused of receiving kickbacks in a rental power project, and the case is in the Supreme Court. He is also accused of buying foreign property with unexplained money, but perhaps that is now easily explained in the Zardari era. After all, Zardariís grand estate in France has been described as ancestral. So if Zardari can have Bourbons as forefathers, it is not beyond Raja Ashrafís capabilities to discover equally convenient ancestors in whichever country he has this property. I have no idea how long Rental Raja will last, but he did become Prime Minister on Friday.
Wit works only if it stretches the truth towards laughter; if it is baseless, it is no more than a silly rant. The joke that poor Zardari was helpless since he could not find any PPP claimant without a corruption case, travels because within the exaggeration lies a hard core of truth. Among the co-accused in the Shahabuddin narcotics case is Ali Musa Gilani, the former PMís son.
There is a helpless quality about laughter at corruption. What else can one do when the evidence is so relentless and pervasive? Tears are a waste. There is already too much to drive a Pakistani to tears: endemic violence in the name of ideology, ethnicity, secession; a hopeless economy stuck in a jobless abyss; the collapse of civic services that leaves citizens literally powerless.
But do not confuse laughter with amity; behind it is a deep anger turning quickly into rage. That rage will become evident on election day. Politicians can hire lawyers to postpone accountability through the judicial system, but they cannot delay the electoral process. Election day is judgement day.
Corruption is not a malady limited to politicians. It is fortunate for judges and journalists that they do not have to face elections. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was a hero when he used the power of the law to pursue the corrupt; today, his son is accused of taking favours from a sleazy businessman. A billionaire knows that contracts come from ministers, not judges. Judges need to be mollified; ministers must be obeyed. His ultimate loyalty is to a Prime Minister, not a Chief Justice. It is far more profitable to place one hand in the glove of a politician, and caress media with the other.
The political class of India and Pakistan are divided by hundreds of factors; but they share common ground in corruption. No one lives on any high moral ground; everyone is mucking about in the basement. Crusader Anna Hazare claims that 15 Cabinet ministers in the present Delhi government are corrupt, and Indians believe him, not their ministers. An important difference, however, is that the variables of federal democracy cripple the ability of Indian politicians to exercise unchallenged power.
The Congress is a subdued party after its demolition in Uttar Pradesh and its disarray in Andhra Pradesh. More important, the Indian Army is not on standby to take over.
The true misfortune about losing a PM in Pakistan is that as civilian bastions like elected government, judiciary and media destroy one another, the only institution left standing is the army. Generals Ayub Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf seized power only after civilians created the opportunity through self-inflicted havoc. It would be very careless of Pakistanís politicians if they allowed history to repeat itself.
M J Akbar is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi