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Will Zardari’s gambit work?

With his back to the wall, Asif Ali Zardari has thrown down the gauntlet, not to the generals this time but to the federal government. Abandoning his long-standing policy of reconciliation, the PPP leader now has all his guns pointed at the prime minister accusing him of betrayal.

Zardari’s outburst was predictable after the detention of his close aide and long-time friend on charges of terror financing and graft. But is Nawaz Sharif really the target of Zardari’s anger? Or is the ire actually directed against the security forces responsible for the crackdown?

Though the noose has been tightening around the PPP for some time, the action against Dr Asim Hussain came as a thunderbolt to the party leadership. It has been more of a panic reaction by the PPP leaders than a show of defiance.

The PPP co-chairman’s fury seems to be part of a strategy to force the Sharif government to choose sides. While the geriatric Sindh chief minister, Qaim Ali Shah, in the run-up to these events termed the federal authorities’ intervention in the province an “an invasion of Sindh”, Khursheed Shah also had harsh words in the aftermath of Dr Asim Hussain’s detention. Zardari’s statement is essentially a charge-sheet against the PML-N rather than a defence of his own party.

Zardari had foreseen this coming and launched a frontal attack on the military leadership a few months ago, only to make a hasty retreat. He was wise enough to leave the country and so did many of his cronies. Though he has now turned his wrath on the Sharif government, he knows well that it is not the federal government but the Rangers who are behind the operation.

All his fury seems to be part of a well-thought-out strategy to force the Sharif government to choose sides. However, it seems unlikely that Zardari’s gambit could work in creating cleavages between the Sharif government and the military leadership over the Karachi crackdown. In fact, the PPP’s hue and cry could further harden the position of the military leadership, which seems adamant on clearing the mess. Lest we forget, there was a marked escalation in the clean-up operation and raids on the Sindh government offices after Zardari’s previous outburst against the generals.

Interestingly, Dr Asim Hussain had returned home recently after reportedly getting assurances that his name was not on the wanted list. Little did he realise that the Rangers’ list was apparently not even shared with the chief minister. Obviously, it is not about what he did, but for who he was allegedly a front. So the buck is not going to stop with him. The question is: who is next and what next?

What is most shocking for the PPP leadership is that the former petroleum minister has been detained under anti-terrorism laws. But that issue too seems to have become irrelevant after the Rangers obtained his physical remand for 90 days. The anti-terrorism laws empower the Rangers to arrest anyone allegedly involved in extortion and corruption.

Hence there is little the PPP leadership can do about it except for fighting a protracted legal battle. The party seems to have long lost its capacity to mobilise the masses to fight a political battle. The authority of the Sindh government has further eroded after the formation of the provincial apex committee under the National Action Plan.

The more empowered Rangers extended their operation to the political party activists allegedly involved in extortion, land grabbing and other crimes. It all started with the raid on the MQM Nine Zero headquarters and detention of scores of party cadres across the city. Many of them were killed in allegedly staged encounters that have become all too frequent. The PPP government went along justifying those actions by the security agencies.

But it was a matter of time before the guns would be turned on the PPP itself. And there was enough material to incriminate the corrupt officials. The raid on the Sindh Building Control Authority and Fishermen’s Cooperative Society was just a trailer of what was to come. Their links allegedly led directly to Bilawal House.

While Dr Hussain does not hold any formal office in the party, he is said to have enormous influence with the former president. He is currently holding the post of chairman of the Sindh Higher Education Commission with the status of a provincial minister. But his powers and influence went beyond his official position. He was also believed to have close links to the MQM leadership.

For sure, the military-backed operation has succeeded in bringing down the scale of violence in the mega city and the country’s economic jugular. There has been a marked decline in the targeted killings that had left thousands of people dead and turned the city into a lawless region with crime mafias patronised by various political parties vying for influence.

But there is also the question of whether the security establishment has overstretched itself getting sucked into the political quagmire. With the expansion in the scope of the operation it finds itself pitted against the two most powerful political forces in the province — the PPP and the MQM. Though the federal government is fully on board when it comes to the Karachi operation, it is not willing to take complete responsibility for the actions against those affiliated with political parties.

While the government is engaged in negotiations with the MQM trying to persuade it to reverse its decision to resign from parliament and the Sindh Assembly, there is no sign of cessation in the crackdown. Now with the PPP up in arms, the situation has turned trickier.

Surely the PPP has taken a calculated gamble, but it may lose the bet. In the process, however, the federal government too may concede more space to the military. There is also the question of whether the crackdown on alleged corrupt politicians will remain confined to Sindh or be extended to the Sharifs’ political heartland. The clouds gathering over the country’s political horizon are ominous.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Zahid Hussain, "Will Zardari’s gambit work?," Dawn. 2015-09-02.
Keywords: Political issues , Political aspects , Political leaders , Security forces , Political parties , Military-Pakistan , Government-Pakistan , Politicians , Khursheed Shah , Dr. Asim Hussain , Qaim Ali Shah , Asif Zardari , PM Nawaz Sharif , Pakistan , PPP , PMLN , MQM