Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, may have missed a historic opportunity to act and this may see him end up as a mere footnote in the country's turbulent history. Had he decided to stage a coup in the wake of the just-concluded lawyers' agitation for reinstating the judges sacked in 2007, he would have become the first Pakistani general in this millennium to do so.
The other reason why General Kiyani may end up as a footnote in Pakistan's history is the fact that no one remembers mere generals. They are feared as long as they are in power. But once out of office they wither fast, like an autumn leaf, out of people's memory.
A combination of factors seems to have held Kiyani back. Some speculate it was the US pressure that prevented him from staging the coup. Others maintain that though he shares his middle name with former president General Pervez Musharraf, he lacks the gumption and the daredevilry of Musharraf. Yet another view suggests that it was a calculated decision on his part to hold his hand, because he realizes that at its present juncture Pakistan is ungovernable and beyond repair. However, like all mysteries about Pakistan, the real reason why General Kiyani didn't march into the Aiwan-e-Sadr in Islamabad may remain wrapped in multiple layers of half-truths.
But General Kiyani need not despair. In Pakistan, history has a habit of repeating itself frequently. So destiny may still await Kiyani at another turn, on another midnight. He could still have his chance then to write his name in Pakistani history books as the first general to usher in a coup of this millennium.
The other major dramatis persona of the recent crisis is undoubtedly Nawaz Sharif. With Benazir Bhutto no longer on the scene, he is the undisputed political leader of Pakistan today. Shrewd and charismatic, he demonstrated to the full his crowd-pulling capacities during the threatened Long March. The March may have been suspended but his personal march will now stop when he heads a new government in Pakistan. Till then his manoeuvring and scheming will go on.
And the newly restored Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is likely to do all he can to help him. Ironically, it was Nawaz Sharif who as Prime Minister in 1997 had instigated his partymen to storm the Supreme Court to drive out the then Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah. Therein lies one basic fundamental of Pakistan's public affairs; and it is that all politics in Pakistan is essentially envy- and vendetta-driven. They seldom forgive and rarely forget.
President Asif Ali Zardari has had his nose rubbed in the ground. Most commentators have rushed forward to write his political obituary, dismissing him as of reducing political significance by the day. But they judge too soon.
They forget that Zardari is street-smart, well-versed in the art of survival. When pushed to the wall, his cunning, never dormant, comes to the fore even more strongly. They also forget that US has very few other choices in Pakistan. Despite all his flaws Zardari is a US ally and, in the ultimate analysis, he gave in to US pressure rather than that of the army alone, when he agreed to the restoration of Chief Justice Chaudhary. Obviously, he must have been given appropriate assurances before he succumbed.
To confound the picture further, the recent protests also brought forth the regional angst. Punjab is the biggest province in terms of population. Its 80 million dwarf vastly the seven million in Baluchistan and the 18 million and 30 million respectively in NWFP and Sindh. Punjabis also occupy the most plum posts in the government. So there has been a long- standing heartburn against it. During the recent protests there were clear anti-Sindh overtones. If and when Zardari is removed it would add to the list of Sindh's complaints.
Meanwhile the Taliban wait nearby in SWAT. They too are biding time before making their next move. That should really mean the next major move because they are already fanning out in Pakistan in multiple ways. Some reports suggest that the Taliban cadres are buying out apartments and other property in Karachi, pushing up the real estate prices there. Of course they are not on this purchase mission motivated by some sudden impulse for domesticity; they are doing so for the sanctuaries these purchases would give them and to support their drugs and arms smuggling activities.
And to counter and defeat the Taliban, two high-level reports on Afghanistan and Pakistan forwarded to the White House have recommended broadening the American covert war in Pakistan far beyond the tribal areas. The attacks, including by Drones, should target the Taliban in Baluchistan as well, these reports suggest.
The logic behind this approach is that American action in the tribal areas has forced the Taliban leaders to shift to Baluchistan and hence they should be targeted there. But the question that needs to be asked is whether the next step would be to target Karachi because some of the Taliban leadership may have moved there.
But the Pakistani leadership may not have the time to pose such questions, engaged as they are in a mortal combat with each other. Zardari lies wounded in his presidential lair, down but definitely not out. Nawaz Sharif may be feeling smug after his victory, but he may soon find that he does not have a clear road to power.
In such a complicated scenario, governing Pakistan is like riding a tiger. It is dangerous all the way through. While you ride, there is the ever-present fear of being thrown off any time, and the moment you fall the tiger is surely going to turn around to swiftly crunch you alive. Therefore General Kayani may have decided rightly to pass the ride.
Yet among all these disparate elements there are two issues that could emotively rearrange the picture swiftly, and bring them all together. The first could be a reaction to an American strike that results in large-scale civilian deaths. The chance of that happening is, however, somewhat remote. And even if a Drone strike goes wrong, the Pakistani establishment is likely to do its best to tone down the reaction.
The other of course is the India factor; and it has never failed to work. Whenever a Pakistan government has been in trouble it ratchets up the anti-India feeling. Either that, or a terrorist attack somewhere in India. For the Zardari government it will be a testing time, one where it will have to demonstrate the capacity to resist both the temptations.
(Rajiv Dogra is a former ambassador and the last Indian consul general in Karachi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)