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Machiavelli's prince and the Sharifs

By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, October 21, 2011

Before venturing comment on the style of politics of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), let us take a peep into the history; the Italian writer Count Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote his classic ThePrince in the latter part of the 15th century. The novel revolved around intrigue, deceit and pretention, which Machiavelli believed constituted the core principles of the ruler's - the prince's - survival. This novel is probably a good way of studying Pakistan's present day politics, particularly analysing the major characters ie President Asif Zardari and his detractor Nawaz Sharif.

In his critique "Machiavelli - The Prince", Count Carlo Sforza, an Italian writer and academic, reproduces some very interesting remarks and observations from the original The Prince to underline that Machiavelli was not as evil as projected in the last 5 centuries.

But what stands out in the book - for a Pakistani reader - is the striking symbolic similarity to some of the developments in the country since late 2007; the Charter of Democracy, the Judges restoration issue, and the Sharifs parting ways with President Zardari (who, like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, probably read The Prince in the recent past).

When talking of the "virtues" of a successful prince, Machiavelli, according to Count Carlo Sforza, thought that a "sagacious prince then cannot and should not fulfil his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interest, and when the causes that induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist. If men were all good, then indeed this precept would be bad; but as men are naturally bad, and will not observe their faith towards you, you must, in the same way, not observe yours to them.

Interpreting Machiavelli, Count Sforza says "there will never be any lack of reasons for taking people's property; and a prince who once begins to live by rapine will ever find excuses for seizing other people's property."

Does it sound like a scenario set up in Pakistan? Well if you cast a cursory look at political developments since the general elections in February 2008, the prince has acted sagaciously - embracing and discarding friends and foes at will. Very clear in his strategy, the prince has forced the out-of-power prince in political isolation.

This perhaps makes the president the true Machiavellian prince; "but it is necessary that the prince should know how to colour this nature well, and how to be a great hypocrite and dissembler. For men are so simple, and yield so much to immediate necessity, that the deceiver, will never lack dupes (the success of President Zardari in duping MQM and PML-Q etc). 

One cannot help thinking that Pakistan today is experiencing a typical Machiavellian style of politics in which the Sharifs stand apart from others, running out of patience and thus scrambling for gimmicks like "go Zardari go".

Does this make sense - as long as the Pakistan People's Party co-chairman also holds the office of the president of the federation of Pakistan? Common logic says no. Having been stamped out of the central government - in a Machiavellian way- and into political isolation, the PML-N now appears desperate to a) dislodge the government, b) oust the president, and c) enforce early elections.

The Sharif's realise little, that as long as The Prince remains thick with the General (Headquarters), nothing will possibly enforce his departure from the Presidential Palace, and if that remains an unlikely scenario, who will dismiss the government that is very much The Prince's government (forget about the 18th amendment which theoretically stripped the president of his powers but practically has had little impact on the way he lords over).

Sharifs also appear oblivious to the limits of the public fatigue of politicians; the power outages, crippling inflation, and the compulsion of the majority to work overtime to survive, simply go against the logic of "go Zardari go". While it is crucial to address the common man's everyday issues, not many would probably be ready to take in batons or bullets for leaders who themselves live in luxury that is akin to that of oil-rich Arab sheikhs.

Equally important is the question as to whether the "go Zardari go" campaign will rid the country of problems in a situation wherein the ruling elite - regardless of whether they are generals or politicians - finds itself in a self-serving mode. Early elections in the latter part of 2012 may appear quite possible, but does this mean a revolutionary change for the people of Pakistan? Certainly not - if the past is an indicator. Why then rock an already rocking boat, with a stagnating economy? Will Zardari's departure signal and guarantee a turnaround? Certainly not.

So what is the way out? The PML-N, rather than embarking on agitation, should wait out the present government and the president's tenure. This is what democracy tells and teaches us. This is what all political leaders would have us believe in. Let the process run its natural course. Early elections, however, are not unusual in democratic dispensations - irrespective of why. And if the government and the president deems it fit , 2012 should be an election year. But this must not happen as a result of agitational politics, nor should political blackmailing enforce such an exercise. If sincere and committed to people and the state of Pakistan, politicians must behave in a politically mature way, rather than treading a path that may win them power but will certainly plunge millions in greater economic crisis. Patience and practical demonstration of belief in democracy is probably of essence to prevent another political crisis that will push the country into another economic crisis as well.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk