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Pervez works on slash-and-burn plan
- Scapegoat hunt closes in on government

New Delhi, March 18: When Pakistan’s lawyers take to the streets on Monday to defend a chief justice who was manifestly not without foibles, it would not be easy to predict the shape their confrontation might take.

General Pervez Musharraf may be partially right in saying that this is a conspiracy. However, he would be hard put to convince anyone that there is a single concerted attempt to get rid of him. There are many disparate groups with different motivations who oppose him.

Pakistan is faced with several crises. There is disenchantment with Musharraf’s rule. Indigenous Pakistani Taliban have sprung up on the Afghan border. Although they control a very small area of North and South Waziristan, their ideological sway extends much beyond. It is difficult to distinguish them ideologically from the Afghan Taliban whom Pakistan needs to leverage its interests in Afghanistan.

Because Afghanistan is likely to remain destabilised in the near future, so will Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. The establishment seems willing to pay that cost to retain influence over Afghanistan.

To top it all, the political coalition represented by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) that Musharraf put together to become president is falling apart. Although the MMA did not sit in the government, it was his “friendly Opposition”. With the MMA in Opposition and the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) occupying the treasury benches, it was relatively easy for Musharraf to legitimise his rule.

Abdul Hamid Nayyar, a social activist and former professor at the Qaid-e-Azam University, explains: “Three kinds of differences have emerged among the religious parties – towards the government, on how they view the other political parties and over tactics for the national elections due at the end of 2007. Many of them want a coalition to weaken Musharraf and his allies.”

Badar Alam, a senior journalist with The News on Sunday says: “The MMA is coming unstuck. The Jamat-e-Islami (JEI) has a middle-class and professional base, and wants modern state institutions run according to religious edicts. The other constituent, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), is more a traditional Islamic party with a worldview akin to Taliban. The JEI is opposed to Musharraf in uniform while the JUI may be open to a covert deal with him.”

Musharraf will now have to replace this arrangement with an alternative and viable political formation, feels Alam.

There are those — and not only in Pakistan — who want Musharraf to form an alternative coalition with Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). But the Choudhary brothers — Shujaat Hussain and Pervez Ilahi — who control the PML (Q) do not want such a deal.

If they get the support of the JUI, they think Musharraf does not need to look to the PPP. The PML(Q)’s home turf is Punjab, with Pervez Ilahi as chief minister, where all the disturbances are focused currently. It is his government that might have to bear the brunt of the recent excesses of Punjab police.

In this context, it is quite possible that last week’s developments may not so much be a conspiracy to remove Musharraf as a pressure tactic to push him to clean up his act and put a new government in place.

That the general may well do that is indicated by the fact that he has distanced himself from the controversy about the removal of the chief justice. He has clarified that he sent the reference to the Supreme Judicial Council as a legal obligation on being asked by the Prime Minister to do so. This suggests that some heads may roll in the Shaukat Aziz government.

If a new government emerges after the present situation plays itself out, that may decide the nature of any future political coalition.

Would Musharraf then continue to depend on the religious parties in coalition with the PML(Q) or expand his search to the PPP'

“I think the PPP is dying to cut a deal with Musharraf. But he will make a last-ditch effort to avoid that by indulging in some slash and burn in the ruling coalition because his aversion to Benazir Bhutto is absolute,” points out a Pakistani commentator who did not want to be identified.

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