Where did the minus-1 formula come from?
Thursday, November 05, 2009
By Shaheen Sehbai
ISLAMABAD: The much abused and widely discussed minus-1 formula, which in other words means either safe or a violent exit of Asif Ali Zardari from the political scene, started taking shape in the power corridors of Islamabad and Rawalpindi when coupled with political failures, there was a torrent of reports of corruption, mainly by people associated and appointed by the presidency on key government and corporate positions, with a turnover of billions in shady deals.
What was going on in the presidency was unprecedented. Crooks and cronies of all hues were being offered lucrative positions in state-run corporations and money minting departments. There was no one on top of the hill to take note and the prime minister was too weak to raise any objection.
Important decision makers quietly admit that Yousuf Raza Gilani was repeatedly told to intervene but he was too meek and had been tasked to keep the politicians, coalition partners and the opposition, engaged and happy with his continued sweet talk, public appeasement and cash incentives for as long as he could. A fly on the wall said a Maulana would appear regularly in the PM House to take what he needed and this was no secret.
“The energisers and vitamin tablets Gilani was being given by many quarters, in hushed tones, were not working until by the end of last year and early 2009 the PM made some high profile moves to sack some bureaucrats, in close consultation with Zardari, to beef up his image. The PM slowly gained confidence. He surprised the president when he visited Karachi and secluded in the private quarters of the Sindh Governor’s House he finalised the list of his top bureaucratic reshuffle, away from the ears and eyes watching the PM House and his office all the time,” an associate revealed.
When Zardari protested, he was quietly told that if he had been informed in advance, the shuffle would not have been possible. A Presidency insider narrated the story of how the lifestyles of people around the president had transformed within weeks and months. “One close aide, working without any official position or a salary, had started wearing shoes costing over Rs300,000 a pair and this guy had no shame in showing off his shoes to anyone and everyone, even those who march in big boots.”
Such stories travelled far and wide and the consensus started developing that if the Presidency was to be used only for making deals by cronies, with the president either shut in his bunker or making trips round the world, this state of affairs could not be sustained. How and when to change it then became the key question.
When pressure started to become unbearable for the PM, he finally talked quietly to Zardari and told him about who, and where, people were getting so upset. This was taken as a direct interference and there was a lot of talk of teaching some people a lesson. A minus-1 option in Rawalpindi was discussed in private sittings. Secret meetings with uniformed star officers were held in the wee hours of cold nights. But as the presidency in Islamabad is the most watched and wired real estate in the country, this secret was soon out. Political amateurs, who had grabbed the high place coming from tiny bit jobs in hospitals, jails, and stud farms or from apartments in exile, could not keep the secret.
Then the presidential camp devised a scheme to turn around the Minus-1 formula.. Publicly its existence was acknowledged, reactions were generated to create a mock political storm, and the idea was to use it against the original target. Before this could be done, decision makers at all stations started thinking about removing the president as it appeared to be the only viable option if the system had to be saved, cleansed and stabilised.
But still there was no operative mechanism. The president was bunkered in so physically he was safe but politically he was committing major blunders eating up his political capital, or whatever was left of it.. By the middle of March, when the judges were restored, his political influence was almost finished yet his business dealings and property acquisition plans were on full steam. The latest report about the 300 acres of land in Islamabad proves he completed the deal in June 2009, oblivious of the disastrous image that he would get. Tragically, the deal also involved Bilawal, whose political career would now start as a partner in a shady deal with his father.
One recurring question that came up almost at every session I had with politicians, retired and working civil and military bureaucrats, journalists and businessmen was whether the democratic set-up and the political system was under any kind of threat if the ‘Minus-1’ formula, was implemented. And almost everywhere the consensus was a big ‘No’.
It was a ‘no, no’ because except democracy Pakistan has no other option, the military option being the most talked about alternative. Mian Nawaz Sharif is the strongest believer that the military may not intervene now, but 3-4 years down the line, he thinks it may come back once the threat of terrorism is under control and some stability is achieved. His fears are genuine but he also believes that politicians have to perform, earn respect and credibility, provide relief to the suppressed masses and continue the process. If they succeed, no one will try and no one will allow a military intervention.
The military establishment has tried hard under General Kayani and General Pasha to wash the black paint General Musharraf had splashed around the Army uniform. From a position where officers were told not to wear that uniform in public, the image has been restored to an extent that people praise their effort in Malakand and their sacrifices in the war on terror. Only a naive commander would want to fight a war with unconventional and murderous terrorists on the one hand and run the civilian affairs of a totally collapsing society on the other.
So the only option is continuation of the system and to let the process take its course. When I argued with many in the top houses where decisions are made, as to what was wrong with a change of face in a ministry, or the PM house or even the Presidency, as there was a mechanism to elect or appoint a replacement through the process, the presidential camp always saw it as a conspiracy against the person of Zardari. But others agree that to take the process further and to make the corrective mechanisms strong, political turbulence should not be taken as a threat to the entire system.
It is generally felt that Zardari has, through his inept handling of major issues and multiple setbacks, almost lost all his chances of stepping down from the Presidency and reach the PM House as leader of the house and PM. Initially, this was one of the acceptable options but now the script does not figure any role for him in the government and he would be left to manage the party, that is if he can do so.
This leaves the PM almost on his own and his major challenge would be to come out of the shadows of Zardari on the one hand and keep the loyalties of as many PPP MPs as possible so that his government’s majority in parliament is not threatened. The Opposition is helping him out, to a degree.
Everyone understands the dilemma facing Prime Minister Gilani as everything that he does which has a stamp of President Zardari’s personal approval is considered to be shady and stinks. So when the cabinet takes a sweeping decision to privatise all big corporations like the PIA, PSO and such other giants, immediately the red flags start going up. The fear is that all these assets will be sold to friends and business partners, even if the process is claimed to be transparent.
The PM should, therefore, stop all such deals and decisions until he becomes a PM in his own right and the decisions are seen as collective decisions to be implemented in a transparent manner and not dictated to suit the deep pockets of presidential friends who have already made billions.
The PM, when he gets out of the shadows of the Presidency, will have to catch these big fish to establish his credibility. Nothing short of a massive hunt for such wheeler dealers with a criminal mind will bring Gilani some credit. He has lived too long as a sheepish lame duck.
PS: A fly on the presidential wall told me the first part of this series was faxed by Altaf Hussain from London to President Asif Zardari on Wednesday with the note that you should read it personally as it had come from a journalist who used to meet you in jail. Hussain also ensured that the fax was seen by the president.
Next: Has a countdown begun in Islamabad?