The Politics of the Killer Quake: Who has Gained and Who has Lost

By Shaheen Sehbai

WASHINGTON, October 17: The Deadly Quake on October’s Black Saturday not just killed thousands, it turned the entire political scene of Pakistan topsy turvy with neither the Government nor the Opposition having any clue of how it would impact their future.

The obvious and the immediate casualty of the tragedy has been the Opposition’s slow but persistently growing campaign against General Pervez Musharraf as all Opposition alliances had finally agreed to launch a united movement against him after Ramadan. That has now been called off.

Another noticeable victim was the break-up of the already fragile religious alliance MMA with Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s Jamaat Islami and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI parting ways. As Chief Minister of NWFP, Akram Durrani, quietly came to attend the hastily summoned meeting of the National Security Council, despite protests by Qazi Hussain Ahmed, it became clear that Musharraf had struck the fatal blow to the religious right.

When Maulana Fazlur Rehman openly supported the participation of his party leader at the NSC, the MMA split became final. Musharraf immediately rewarded Chief Minister Akram Durrani with a promise of several billion rupees in aid for the quake victims.

Exiled politicians Benazir Bhutto of PPP, Nawaz Sharif of PML and Altaf Hussain of MQM were still unable to muster enough political courage to return to the country as some analysts thought it may have been a smart move which would have made it awfully difficult for Musharraf to go after them at such a sensitive time. But all these leaders stayed abroad and tried to contribute verbally and by making personal donations and asking their parties to do whatever they could to provide help and relief.

Nawaz Sharif, in fact, used the occasion cleverly to break his forced silence and gave live TV interviews, his first in almost 5 years, though he deliberately avoided talking about politics or to criticize the Army. Altaf Hussain saw in the tragedy an opportunity to naively establish the non-ethnic credentials of his party by appealing to the constituencies outside the Mohajir strongholds of Karachi and Hyderabad.

General Musharraf, himself unsure how the media criticism of his inept handling of the crisis in the early days would play out, recovered quickly and started flying up and down the quake-hit areas to activate his administration.

And in an attempt to appease the Opposition, he publicly thanked them for their concern and cooperation, by which he probably meant their inability to mount a serious barrage against him. Interestingly Musharraf repeatedly insisted that the blame game should not be played, implicitly admitting that some blame could be placed at his doors.

That he realized soon and thought it prudent to apologize without loss of time for his lapses in order to keep the smoke from turning into a fire. He then went on to focus on the relief effort.

The mainstream Opposition, realizing that its single track politics of attacking Musharraf on issues of democracy, human rights and power politics may turn out to be counter-productive in such a situation, announced postponing their anti-Musharraf campaign and instead vowed full support in relief efforts.

All this means that everybody was looking at the tragedy through the glasses of his own political future and was trying not to do anything that could be attributed by the opponents as untimely opportunism or callousness in pursuit of political power.

So what impact will the tragedy have on the political players of the country is the big question.

One thing is clear. The only organized institution which can provide some help and relief to the victims in far flung remote areas is the Pakistan Army and they will have to receive the acclaim or share the blame, depending on how they conduct the relief operations and use or misuse the millions coming in as unconditional aid.

The political parties seem helpless in any case as neither do they have the structure to provide any meaningful assistance, other than staging some road shows for TV cameras, nor do they have the credible leadership on the ground to challenge the actions or inaction of the Government and the Army.

Had Benazir Bhutto herself, Nawaz or Shahbaz Sharif or even Asif Zardari camped themselves in Muzaffarabad with several tiers of leaders and workers, sharing the grief and pain of the victims, the Government would have been seriously challenged. That is not possible.

But the role of these parties is still not yet over. The bigger and more serious challenge is still to be met. When hundreds of millions of dollars pour in as aid from round the world, there has to be an equally strong and organized watchdog role of the political parties, the private media and the civil society to ensure that most, if not all, of it goes into the right places and is not gobbled up by scam artists who surround General Musharraf in hordes.

General Musharraf has not done well to name some of these very scavengers as managers of the relief funds, specially those who have publicly admitted that they were more interested in keeping billions of rupees for their own salaries, perks and privileges although these billions were obtained from the Government in the name of spreading education and providing health to the general masses.

Now these scam artists are under the eye of the cameras as their past is shadowy and the job Musharraf is giving them provides them the chance of their life to pilfer away billions in the name of earthquake aid.

The politicians who have been supporting Musharraf, the likes of the Choudhries of Gujrat, are also feeling left out in the relief effort and in a display of some accommodation to the other politicians in Opposition ranks, have agreed to sit together to discuss the tragedy and what to do about it in a All Parties Round Table Conference. But these moves are more political than to benefit those in desperate need.

It is also clear that for many months and probably years to come, the October 8 tragedy will determine the shape of politics in Pakistan.

The only, and so far the obvious, beneficiary has been General Musharraf himself as the toll of death and misery has diverted all attention from his rule and misrule of the last 6 years and has given him another chance to prove that he can do much more than any of his critics.

In that sense, Musharraf himself is also using the tragedy to push his political agenda of 2007 when he is committed to hold fresh general elections and when he himself intends to seek a new term of office as president.

What Musharraf does now will become the issue of his election campaign in 2007 and conversely the role the Opposition plays now will determine the strength of the challenge it can mount against Musharraf and his allies.

What everyone is not focusing on is that such a monumental tragedy should have brought everyone to his or her senses, brought every one together in order to turn a fresh leaf in politics by forgetting and forgiving the past and starting an era of accommodation and cooperation.

Musharraf has to play that bigger and wiser role because he has to realize that if even now he introduces an institutionalized system of politics and change of governments, it may help him more than anyone else. If he seeks legitimacy through an accepted and internationally recognized process, he would have succeeded in playing the role of a visionary and may acquire another term in his office, this time legitimately.

But if he continues on the path of confrontation to eliminate or push aside all potentially serious but popular opponents, through the use of his gun, he would only prolong the agony and misfortune of the nation.

This is so because one day he has to go and if on that day, Pakistan goes back to square one and starts all over again with a new military commander staging a coup or grabbing power, it would be a bigger tragedy for the country, may be bigger than Black Saturday of October 8.

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