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Yousuf Raza Gilani: A Tall Man with a Task of Tall Order

Ashok K. Behuria is Senior Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 03, 2008

    Yousuf Raza Gilani was nominated by Asif Ali Zardari as the PPP candidate for prime ministership on March 22, 2008. On that occasion, Zardari called upon Gilani “to accept the heavy responsibility and lead the coalition government and the nation to greater heights and a glorious future.” Pakistan’s National Assembly elected Gilani as Prime Minister (264 votes to 42 over Pervez Elahi of PML-Q) two days later.

    Gilani started off well by announcing that as Prime Minister (PM) he would first wish to order the release of judges kept under house arrest by the previous administration. Police forces promptly responded to this wish. Even before he was sworn in as PM, police were seen lifting the barricades and setting the judges free. Gilani also invited all parties to join the coalition in the interest of democracy and work together to establish the supremacy of parliament, constitution and rule of law. Many in Pakistan termed it as the ultimate victory of the people.

    Makhdoom Gilani also exhibited the right spirit of reconciliation when he decided to meet Makhdoom Amin Fahim. This meeting came in the backdrop of rumours that the PPP would split if Gilani were to be chosen over Fahim. During the meeting, Gilani addressed Fahim as ‘my elder brother” and “my leader” to express his sense of loyalty and respect to the senior leader. It is difficult to say whether this has proved enough to assuage Fahim’s injured feelings at not being nominated for the prime ministership after initial projections to this effect.

    Gilani’s Background

    Those familiar with the tradition of “Pirs” and “Makhdooms” might not have found Gilani’s spirit of reconciliation surprising. Makhdooms share a wider ‘Sufi’ tradition and respect one another. They have considerable influence in their respective areas. It is important to note that out of the four names suggested for prime ministership, three were Makhdooms. Gilani is a descendant of the famous Qadiriya saint Musa Pak Shaheed of Multan, who came from Iran. Gilani is also related to the Makhdoom of Jamaldinwali and the Pir of Pagara. His mother is from the former family and her sister is married to the Pir of Pagara.

    Makhdoom families were pampered by the British and later invited by the Muslim League to join the Pakistan movement. Gilani’s family had in fact joined the movement in the 1940s and were devoted followers of Jinnah.

    Born in 1952, Gilani began his political career in the mid-1970s. He joined the Pakistan Muslim League, which was revived by Zia-ul-Haq in the early 1980s. He won the 1985 elections and became a federal minister in Muhammad Khan Junejo’s government. He, however, left Junejo’s cabinet after developing serious differences with him and rushed to Karachi to meet Benazir Bhutto and offered to work with her when she was in the political wilderness.

    In the 1988 elections, Gilani defeated Nawaz Sharif and became a minister in Benazir’s cabinet. He was chosen as speaker of the National Assembly when Benazir’s PPP returned to power in 1993. He differed with Benazir over issues where he felt she was in the wrong. He invoked her wrath but inspired her quiet admiration at the same time.

    Gilani lost to PML-N candidate, Sikandar Hayat Bosan, in 1997, when Nawaz won a massive landslide in Punjab. He could not join the electoral fray in 2002 because he was arrested on corruption charges by the Musharraf regime and put in jail. He supported his nephew Syed Asad Murtaza Gillani in the 2002 elections. Murtaza won and joined the breakaway PPP faction, which supported Musharraf. This led to rumours that Gilani has switched loyalties to Musharraf.

    But such speculation proved to be untrue and Gilani continued to languish in jail for five long years until his release in October 2006. He spent his time in jail productively and wrote his autobiography, Chahe Yusuf ki Sada. After his release, Gilani worked full-time as a party-man and won the confidence of senior leaders within the party. Fahim, who led the PPP in Benazir’s absence, was particularly fond of him for his principles and his devotion to the party.

    Gilani’s Agenda

    On March 29, Gilani became the first PM of Pakistan to win a unanimous vote of confidence. He unveiled his 100 days’ relief and reform plan the same day to wide acclaim. His agenda reflected a sombre and reconciliatory mood rather than a confrontationist and combative one. It touched upon a whole range of issues – education, terrorism, legislative supremacy, administrative reforms and foreign policy.

    Gilani began his address by stating that ‘dahshatgardi’ (terrorism) was the most critical issue to be addressed by his government and held that “the restoration of law and order and total elimination of terrorism will be (its) first priority.” He described extremist forces as “people who had chosen the path of violence as a means of expressing their views”, and appealed to them to give up their approach, talk to the government and join the political forces “in this journey of democracy”. He argued that the roots of terrorism lay in “poverty and illiteracy” and promised to soon evolve a new package for the tribal areas as an “important pillar of our strategy in the war against terrorism”. He proposed the removal of the Frontier Crimes Regulation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He also stated that his government would set up a Madressah Welfare Authority to audit funds and provide a uniform syllabus for Madressahs in consultation with all stakeholders. He made it clear that his government’s approach in dealing with extremists will be through dialogue rather than force.

    Gilani’s statement on foreign policy was rather brief and signalled no major departure from that of the previous administration. He said his government’s policy would be based on “goodwill and peaceful co-existence” and it would seek relations with all countries on the basis of sovereign equality. He made it clear that his government wanted “strong and close relations with America and Europe” and sought to “promote peace and brotherhood with neighbouring countries”. In line with Musharraf’s policy, he also sought closer ties with the Muslim world and China.

    On the Kashmir issue, he stated, to thunderous applause from the house, that the “sacrifices of the Kashmiri people would not go in vain”. He made ‘Kashmir’ appear central to the ongoing India-Pakistan peace process. He said that his government would carry forward the (composite) talks with India, but added that confidence-building measures will be useful only when they lead to the resolution of the problem “in the light of the aspirations of the Kashmiri people and international principles.”

    His Minister for Kashmir Affairs, Qamar Zaman Kaira, taking this cue has even suggested that the government would follow the Kashmir policy Benazir carved out during the 1990s. In fact, Benazir had followed an inflexible and hard line approach then. Zaman has also called Kashmir the “basic issue” which needs to be resolved for “better ties” with India. Hussain Haqqani, who has been appointed an ambassador-at-large and special advisor on foreign affairs and national security to Gilani, has given a further hint that normalisation of relations with India will be a priority for the new government but no “unilateral concessions” would be made.

    On the political front, Gilani announced certain initiatives that are likely to augur well for democracy in Pakistan. He gave the assurance that the PM would henceforth answer questions directly in the house. He also proposed to set up a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ to facilitate the transition from military rule to democracy. On a symbolic note, to underline the supremacy of parliament, he held that the largest national flag would be flown from the parliament house. The message could not have been lost on the adjuncts of the military establishment that his government has replaced.

    But the major focus of the programmes highlighted by him was on taking prompt measures to avert an economic crisis. He referred to the problems faced by people in accessing electricity and water as well as shortages in atta (flour) supply. His proposed policies thus provided for farmer-friendly measures, a National Employment Schemes to provide jobs for the poor, austerity measures like cutting down on government expenditures, including 40 per cent cut-down on PM’s house, and a million-housing-units plan to provide home for the homeless.

    Significantly, his stand vis-à-vis the Army was cautious. He welcomed the Army Chief’s decision to withdraw serving military officers from civilian posts, but expressed his willingness to accommodate some of them if civilian replacements were not available for the time being. After Musharraf’s retirement, the Army has regained its legitimacy as an important institution in Pakistan and this perhaps explains his moderation. He stressed rather indirectly that it was necessary “for solidarity and progress of the country that every institution fulfilled its specific responsibilities,” and added that “Governance” should remain the “responsibility of only the people”. Strangely, he was silent on the issue of Musharraf’s continuation as President and did not raise the issue of restoration of the judges either.

    In an important remark, Gilani acknowledged the sufferings of the Baloch people and promised that his government would work towards provincial autonomy. As a first step, it would remove the concurrent list from the constitution within a year, enabling states to have exclusive authority over certain affairs.

    The Future

    Gilani has a lot of ground to cover in the coming days. His first 100 days in office may not be a smooth ride, given the challenges he faces at the moment. The ministers he has chosen from different parties will have to work together to fulfil the promises he has made. Moreover, his opening speech was full of general principles and guidelines for his government. But in the coming days he may find it difficult to apply these principles while dealing with more specific and intricate issues like devolution of power to the provinces, Kalabagh dam, sectarian violence and linkages between Al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban. He also has to balance his moderate approach towards terrorism with efforts to secure the flow of material help from Western countries.

    Gilani has to lead a coalition that survives more on the mutual hatred towards Musharraf than common love for democracy. Sceptics in Pakistan argue that Musharraf’s departure, which looks more certain now than ever before, could lead to the re-emergence of factional rivalries and rip the coalition apart. There is also a suspicion that Gilani may be asked to leave after Zardari’s election to the National Assembly. It is too early to say whether Gilani can fulfil his agenda and succeed in his mission during the 100 days he has set for himself.