ISLAMABAD // The frosty relationship between Pakistan's two top politicians, Asif Ali Zardari, the president, and Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader, showed signs of thawing at a dinner on Monday that appeared aimed at silencing an army-fed whisper campaign against the government.
The two met, accompanied by substantial entourages, at the President's House in Islamabad in an event marked by warm embraces, beaming smiles, a frank but friendly exchange of views on national issues, and a banquet menu dominated by the favourite Kashmiri delicacies of Mr Sharif, a renowned gourmet. The members of the opposition delegation were even given parting presents of baskets of fresh fruit and nuts, a social gesture usually reserved for visiting sons-in-law.
Images of the dinner dominated current affairs prime time programming on the cable news channels, with the lack of substantial progress on constitutional issues greeted with derision by many programme anchors, among them army sympathisers. Both sides downplayed the event, saying only that there had been a general agreement on the need to strengthen Pakistan's fledgling parliamentary democracy through reforms such as the transfer of powers accrued by the presidency during the military rule of Pervez Musharraf.
In fact, there were no specifics at all, save the reiteration of one crucial sentence by Mr Sharif: "We will not become a party to conspiracies against the government." That choice of words was deliberate: it did not include provisos such as "in the event of" a conspiracy, or "any given" conspiracy, and, in doing so, signalled Mr Sharif's awareness that the political wing of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate has been seeking to exploit the distrust and animosity that has grown between him and Mr Zardari since the break-up in May 2008 of the grand democratic coalition government they had formed after elections just two months earlier.
The source of the whisper campaign, which has called for the removal of Mr Zardari on one pretext or another, became public knowledge on October 7 when a conference of 17 senior generals, chaired by Gen Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, challenged the presidency over its acceptance of "clauses impacting on national security" contained in a US economic assistance programme. Gen Kayani had also secretly met with confidants of Mr Sharif on October 3 to express the generals' concerns.
In both the public statement issued on October 7, and at the clandestine meeting four days earlier, according to sources in the Sharif camp, the army chief had been at pains to emphasise that he and his generals had no intention of overthrowing Pakistan's democracy. Similarly, a deliberate distinction was made between the government of Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, and the presidency. In doing so, Mr Kayani practically acknowledged the army's propagation of a "minus-one" political formula in which Mr Zardari would have been forced to sacrifice the presidency for the greater democratic good.
Clearly, the stance was designed to appeal to the sentiments of people in central Punjab province, home to more than half the national population and about 80 per cent of army officers, and the electoral bastion of Mr Sharif. However, the army chief's politicking was little more than a smokescreen and Mr Sharif knew it, distancing himself from the furore over the US aid programme, spending two weeks in London to attend to his ailing wife.
When he finally returned to Pakistan last week, he did voice objections to the aid programme, but diverted the debate by emphasising the need for the government to reduce its huge foreign debt by mobilising internal resources. Political stability was again threatened last week after the government's decision to table for parliamentary approval a controversial law, the National Reconciliation Ordinance, promulgated in November 2007 by Mr Musharraf, then president, to facilitate the subsequent transition from military rule to democratic governance.
Although Mr Sharif has opposed the law, saying it would undermine the credibility of parliament, his criticism has been markedly mild. Instead, he advised the president and other politicians, who have benefited from an amnesty on politically motivated corruption and political cases provided for in the law, to seek vindication from the fiercely independent judiciary. In doing so, Mr Sharif has shown he has forgiven, if not forgotten, Mr Zardari for reneging, in May 2008, on a written commitment to restore Supreme Court judges dismissed in November 2007 by Mr Musharraf.
Mr Sharif had subsequently thrown his weight behind lawyers campaigning for the restoration of the fired judges, and in March spurred a protest march of thousands that forced Mr Zardari to capitulate, but which also opened the door for Gen Kayani to reassert the army's role in national politics. It was the general who interceded to prevent the protest from reaching a potentially destabilising and violent culmination by pressuring Mr Zardari to accept the protesters' demands.
However, while the two politicians have apparently defined the parameters of their rivalry, the army is showing no signs of ceasing its clandestine manoeuvres. Having sensed the failure of its attempt to stir the opposition into doing its dirty work, journalists and editors said intelligence operatives were on Monday attempting to spread a new rumour to news outlets: the "minus-one formula" was replaced with "minus-three", that is, democracy without Mr Zardari, Mr Gilani and Mr Sharif.