by Seema Mustafa
In South Asia , rumours about the exit of a particular leader reflect his growing weakness to hold the fort as it were. There have been moments in India when 'quitting' rumours flood the grapevine about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In Pakistan the impact is more lethal, and this is the first time that President Musharraf has been at the receiving end despite his low and quiet profile over the last few weeks.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, his country's grapevine suggests, is thinking of stepping down. This change of heart has reportedly happened after a particularly long meeting he had with army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and even as the stock market dissolved into chaos, the President strongly refuted the reports.
This story, he said, was being spread by those who wanted to drive a wedge between him and the army. It had caused incalculable harm to the nations economy, he said as in a damage control drive he met Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani and at a farewell dinner for General (retd) Khalid Maqbool made it clear that the rumours that had virtually paralysed Pakistan were baseless. Has Musharraf resigned? Has he been removed? Is he on the way to Turkey ? were the various versions as the rumour spun out of control in Pakistans streets.
The story was further fuelled by comments made earlier by PPP's Zardari where he described Musharraf as a "relic of the past." And added to by PML's Nawaz Sharif who ruled out a safe passage for the President, insisting that he would be tried on charges of sedition. Clearly there was also something in the Musharaf-Kayani meeting that added to the rumours that had gripped Pakistan on Thursday, as all does not appear to be well between the two. The army chief, for instance, has transferred known Musharraf favorites out of key position. And while spokespersons for both sides say that relations are fine, the response is devoid of effusive rhetoric. The fact that the meeting lasted over three hours is also interesting, as clearly there were elements that needed to be sorted out between the two. Kayani has taken over the army in real terms, is regarded as a professional soldier, and is seen as a soldiers man, at least for the moment. In other words, the army has not taken long to shift loyalty from the President to the general.
The rumour, thus might or might not have a grain of serious truth. But it is definitely indicative of the new situation, where the anger against Musharraf and the US has not died with the elections, and the people are expecting him to leave or to be made to leave. This might or might not be a good thing. For one, it suggests a state of continuing uncertainty that Pakistan can ill afford. By now those entrusted with the future of the country should have taken a decision one way or the other about Musharraf. Comments such as those by Zardari and Sharif create further confusion and uncertainty, at a time when Pakistan is in dire need of stability. If the decision is to remove the President, this should be done with a certain grace and dignity so that the transition is smooth. If the President is to stay in office, then the institution should be respected and the politicians should censor their own comments.
The differences between Zardari and Sharif are well known, with both aware of their limitations and yet fearful and suspicious of the other. The people of Pakistan , as the turn out and the enthusiasm during the elections demonstrated, have a love for democracy. And after the spate of army rule that brought the war on terror to every doorstep, adding to the insecurity and vulnerability of the people and the nation, the desire for a political break is overwhelming. But the suspicions surrounding Zardari remain, and Sharif despite the good will is still not in a position to spread his wings outside Punjab in any meaningful way. The differences between the two over the restoration of the judiciary---an emotive and important issue in Pakistan ----are well known, and it will need a high level of maturity and sobriety for the leaders to forge lasting links between the PPP and the PML-N.
It is true that Nawaz Sharif has an eye on the next elections, and Zardari is trying to keep in power with reports suggesting links with Musharraf and the US . The Bush administration still sees the President as its best bet, largely because he could control the army and was not accountable to the people. The politicians in power cannot embrace the US in the same manner, as their constituencies are hostile now to Washington and will not condone any underhand deals. The army under Kayani might also not be as pliable, as one he is a soldiers general and does not seem presently inclined to allow the army to suffer losses for another country's war. It is perhaps because of these factors, that the US has had no option but to accept Pakistan 's decision to move for a political settlement with the Swat Taliban, even as various functionaries continue to issue threats of direct US action if this initiative fails.
In the midst of this, the visit by Minister of external affairs Pranab Mukherjee to Pakistan could at best keep the peace dialogue going. Little more could be expected, as Mukherjee has to forge new working relations with the leaders in power even as he continues to maintain good relations with President Musharraf. His was more in the nature of an exploratory visit, and one can only hope he has come back with the right readings that will feed into a sound strategy on Pakistan . Of course, given the UPA governments track record this is highly unlikely but then there can always be an exception to the rule.
In South Asia , rumours about the exit of a particular leader reflect his growing weakness to hold the fort as it were. There have been moments in India when 'quitting' rumours flood the grapevine about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In Pakistan the impact is more lethal, and this is the first time that President Musharraf has been at the receiving end despite his low and quiet profile over the last few weeks. This is indicative of one, the peoples desire to see him go; two, the uncertain political situation where anything is possible; and three, a possibility that his days now are actually numbered, and he is in office on sufferance. President Musharraf realizes the gravity of the situation as apart from the dinner denial, he has made efforts to meet the political leadership immediately after. He definitely does not want to be in a situation where rumours are able to determine the reality.