The former president seems to have thrown down the gauntlet. Whatever happens next, the survival of the Sindh government is now at stake. Political observers describe the last-minute cancellation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with Mr Zardari as ominous.
What made Mr Zardari launch a frontal attack on the military leadership? Most observers and even some PPP leaders agree that it was a reaction to the raid early this week by the Rangers on the Sindh Building Control Authority office. “The links lead to senior PPP leaders,” says a source familiar with the investigation.
Earlier, Rangers had released a report about the crime situation in Karachi, accusing political parties of being directly involved in land-grabbing, extortion and smuggling — swindling billions of rupees every year. This the Sindh government saw as a deliberate move to undermine the civilian administration. “The Rangers have for a long time been transgressing the force’s mandate to embarrass the provincial government,” says PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar.
Those two incidents last week may have proved to be crunch points, but the tension between the federal law enforcement agency and the Sindh government has been mounting for quite some time. PPP leaders often complained of the Rangers establishing a parallel authority and getting involved in affairs beyond their jurisdiction. The allegations have been firmly refuted, though, by the federal government and the Rangers.
Although the Rangers were called out in aid of the civil administration and have now been spearheading law enforcement in Karachi for many years, the strain intensified after the formation of the provincial apex committee — that also included the local corps commander and the head of the Rangers — earlier this year under the National Action Plan to fight terrorism.
Some highly placed sources confirm reports about tension brewing between civil and military leaders in the apex committee meetings, with the army and Rangers’ officials taking up issues of widespread corruption and the collapse of administration in Karachi.
Many analysts, however, agree that the ineptitude of the Sindh government and the virtual collapse of civil law enforcement allowed the Rangers to fill the vacuum. The provincial government and PPP leaders ignored repeated warnings, further widening the gap between the army and provincial administration. The action by the Rangers has also provoked the ire of the MQM, which has been the major target of the crackdown.
Interestingly, the provincial government and the PPP leadership vehemently defended the Rangers’ action against the MQM and the alleged extra-judicial killing of the latter’s activists. But the conflict came to a head when the crackdown was extended to the government officials.
According to security officials, the land scam in Karachi that has thrived under the direct patronage of PPP leaders is the biggest source of crime and the major cause of violence between various political parties involved in a turf war. “Why don’t the Rangers go after militant and sectarian groups, which is their responsibility?” questions Farhatullah Babar.
Given the worsening law and order situation, traders and big business started looking towards the military and the demand for the imposition of governor’s rule grew louder. That the corps commander frequently addressed businessmen also raised eyebrows in the civil administration.
All this led to the reinforcement of the suspicion that the noose was being tightened around senior PPP leaders. “The attack on the military leaders by Zardari is a desperate move to pre-empt any action by the Rangers against his close associates,” says Dr Hassan Askari, a leading political analyst.
Although there has not been any public response by the military as yet, a senior official described the speech by the former president as “disgraceful”. The strong condemnation that has come from the prime minister and federal ministers is clear indication that Mr Zardari cannot hope for support from any political party. “Mr Zardari now has very limited options,” says Mr Askari. “The policy of confrontation will not work. He has boxed himself into a corner.”
It remains to be seen, though, how Mr Zardari extricates himself and his party from this situation.