Pipeline politics

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The Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project finalised amidst much fanfare with the presidents of Iran and Pakistan attending the ceremony has been generally supported by the people of this country. We need fuel to feed our power houses and, given the rising gas supply-demand gap the IP would provide access to 750 mmcf gas daily which would go some way in meeting our existing gap of over 3 bmcf.

This is irrespective of the price agreed, which was cited as one of the reasons for India's withdrawal from the project. However, the inauguration was seen by political analysts as an act of defiance by Pakistan's President against the United States' stated reservations on the pipeline - a defiance that many a PPP supporter believes would stand the party in very good stead in the forthcoming elections. The IP pipeline may thus emerge as a major selling point of the party, apart from the promise to create a province in south of Punjab, as it goes into election mode with all major economic indicators as well as charges of massive and widespread corruption against the party's senior leadership hogging the airwaves as well as the print media.

Defiance by the PPP-led Pakistani government in spite of an explicitly stated warning by the US is the first of its kind during the past five years. But it is general knowledge that Pakistan's relations with the US, India and Afghanistan are actually determined by General Headquarters (GHQ) rather than the Foreign Office. This does not imply that the US and other developed countries are unaware of which entity determines foreign policy and the proof of this is evident from the frequent official trips by the army high command to foreign capitals. Analysts argue that the suspension of supply of Nato containers through Pakistan to Afghanistan was a decision taken by the establishment subsequent to the killing of 24 soldiers in Salala by Nato forces with the government merely being seen as the implementer of the decision.

The same applies to other major irritants namely the escalation in the number of drone strikes and the frequent challenges to the bills for reimbursement presented by the establishment for fighting the war on terror under the Coalition Support Fund. Interestingly though the incumbent Obama administration has severely compromised the perception of the establishment's competence like never before by not taking it into confidence prior to launching an attack on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad and subsequently compelling the establishment to publicly accept the charge of incompetence over complicity with bin Laden. Sufficient time of course has passed that accounts for few in the public still remembering that admission.

Be that as it may, there is a growing perception in the country that one of the factors why the President Zardari-led coalition survived its five-year tenure is because it deferred to the establishment on all matters that were of interest to it after, on occasion, an initial short period of defiance. Examples include allowing former President Musharraf to leave the country with a guard of honour, the prompt withdrawal of the notification bringing ISI under the Ministry of Interior, and succumbing to the advice of the Chief of Army Staff on the 'long march' for the restoration of the judiciary at the eleventh hour. It is therefore argued that the IP gas pipeline too must have explicit approval of the establishment.

Those enamoured of President Zardari's political acumen that accounted for his survival for five years see the IP gas pipeline inauguration as killing two birds with one stone: to show to the electorate that the party leadership is defying the US and at the same time sending a message that the energy crisis would now be resolved because of his personal intervention. Analysts maintain that given that the IP pipeline was expected to be supported by the public with consequent favourable implications on PPP's fortunes in the elections may have been the reason behind the army's support. And cite WikiLeaks 'revelation' as proof of their contention namely that General Kayani's opinion of both Nawaz Sharif and President Zardari is not favourable but between the two he reportedly prefers to deal with the latter. The pace of construction of the IP can be controlled by the army, which may be used as leverage against the US. Time will tell if there is any truth to these theories.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has accused the "Zardari gang" of deferring the signing ceremony till a mere few days before the government completed its tenure and not five years ago to create complications for the next government. This reveals that not only is Shahbaz Sharif aware of the political dimensions of the ceremony, to which he was invited but never attended, but also is not sure if the next government would get a green signal from the establishment and is then blamed for not implementing a good project due to a pro-US stance. So did President Zardari play good politics with the IP? Probably, though that does not mean he will not follow GHQ proposal whatever it may be if his party returns to power. There is no doubt though that the PML (N) would have a tough choice on its hands if it forms the next government with respect to the IP project: it would be damned if it undertakes it with US threatening reprisals and damned if it doesn't with the public angered over its abandonment.

On a lighter vein the IP pipeline project ceremony was not lavish as is borne out by the return to Islamabad of hungry journalists compelled to fast for the entire day as arrangements for lunch had been made at a place more than 50 kilometres away from the inauguration site. Unfortunately, however, the Pakistani VIPs did receive packed lunches proving the Orwellian dictum namely some are more equal than others.

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