In the wake of the Pakistani Supreme Court ruling setting aside the withdrawal of the corruption cases against about 8000 public servants and political leaders, including President Asif Ali Zardari, by Pervez Musharraf through his National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), Pakistan faces a tricky political situation, which would need careful watch. A worrisome beneficiary of this situation would be the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the various anti-India terrorist groups of Punjab known collectively as the Punjabi Taliban. If the situation is not carefully handled, it could add to the difficulties of the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
2. Personally, Zardari has only two options---- either leave office in dignity after asking Bilawal Bhutto, now studying in London, to take over the responsibility for the day-to-day management of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and fight out the corruption cases against him in court or face the prospect of being forced to leave office in humiliation by a public agitation if he refuses to leave office by using his immunity against criminal investigation and prosecution.
3. It may be recalled that in her so-called political will, the late Benazir Bhutto had nominated Zardari as her successor as the leader of the party, but Zardari suggested that since Bilawal was not yet of the required age to be able to contest the elections, Zardari should only manage the affairs of the party as its acting or co- President while grooming Bilawal to ultimately take over all responsibilities relating to the party. Thus, the position today is that while Bilawal is the de jure head of the PPP, Zardari is its de facto head.
4. One has reasons to fear a creeping political confrontation between Zardari, who has been weakened beyond repair as the President of Pakistan, but continues to remain strong as the acting President of the PPP, and Yousef Raza Gilani, who has grown stronger as the Prime Minister with the tacit support of the Army, but has very little following in the party.
5. Though the PPP has a large base of support in Pakistan as a whole, its core strength comes from Sindh, which remains loyal to Zardari till now. Any open confrontation between Zardari and Gilani and any suspicion in Sindh that Gilani and the Army are acting in tandem to force the exit of Zardari through a public agitation could turn the confrontation between Zardari on the one side and Gilani and the Army on the other into a Sindhi-Punjabi confrontation. At a time when Pakistan is facing growing political violence in Balochistan due to the alienation of the Balochs and a growing jihadi violence in the tribal belt due to the alienation of the Pashtuns after the military raid into the Lal Masjid of Islamabad in July,2007, it cannot afford to have anti-Punjabi violence in Sindh. If one remembers the instances of attacks on Punjabis in Sindh after the assassination of Benazir, one will not rule out the possibility of a recrudescence of similar incidents if Zardari is sought to be humiliated by Gilani and the Army, with the support of political leaders from Punjab belonging to the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister.
6. The PPP, though strong in Sindh, is not a united party. There are under the surface differences between the original Sindhi adherents of the Party, who remain loyal to the Bhutto family, and the supporters of Zardari who came into the party and allegedly captured it after Zardari married Benazir.
7. The forced exit of Zardari in humiliation could open a new Pandora's Box with the danger of a Sindhi anger against the Army further complicating the internal security situation already rendered difficult by the Baloch and Pashtun anger against the Army.
8. If the Army is wise, it would keep out of the messy political situation and avoid taking sides in the looming three-cornered political confrontation----- Zardari vs Gilani, Zardari vs Nawaz and the loyalists of Zardari vs those of Zulfiquar Ali and Benazir Bhutto.
9.If Zardari decides to leave office in dignity and asks Bilawal to take over as the de facto and the de jure President of the Party, he might still be able to retrieve the situation and prevent further political instability in Pakistan. (18-12-09)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )