April 15, 2008 | Op-ed

Will Yousaf Raza Gilani change Pakistan?

Gilani languished in prison for five years under Musharraf’s rule, charged with making illegal government appointments during his term as the speaker of parliament. Gilani has told Pakistan’s English-language daily Dawn that the charges were “concocted” and “fabricated” in an effort to make him abandon the Pakistan Peoples Party, which was at the time led by Benazir Bhutto.

Yet thus far Gilani has not taken the confrontational approach toward Musharraf that many observers anticipated, and that some Pakistanis transparently hoped for.

Husain Haqqani, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University whom Gilani recently appointed as ambassador-at-large, told this writer: “So far, the two have interacted quite positively, notwithstanding Gilani’s own suffering at Musharraf’s hands. Quite clearly Gilani is able to rise above the personal to make things work for the country.”

Though Gilani, 55, was born in Karachi, his family hails from Punjab. In Punjab, the Gilanis are prominent landowners and recognized spiritual leaders descended from the Sufi saint of Multan, Moosa Pak Shaheed. Haqqani explained that Gilani’s spiritual upbringing has influenced his political views, in that Sufism makes him “very clear in his vision of tolerance and pluralism as Islamic virtues.”

Gilani’s family has a generations-long history of political involvement. His great-grandfather was Multan’s mayor and a member of India’s legislature prior to partition; his grandfather and paternal uncle were both elected politicians; and Gilani’s father won election to the Punjab Assembly in 1951 before being elevated to provincial health minister in 1953.

Gilani went to high school in Multan, attended college in Lahore, and received a master’s degree in journalism from Punjab University in 1976. It is perhaps surprising, given his family background, that Gilani appeared uninterested in student politics during his time at Punjab University (although his former instructors and classmates told Pakistan’s Daily Times that he had been “intelligent, competent and had a balanced personality”).

After Gilani’s father died, he finally became active in politics in 1978, joining the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) during Muhammad Zia ul-Haq’s military rule. Gilani achieved two ministerial positions, minister of housing and works and railways minister. Despite his early association with the PML, Gilani is now identified with the PPP. He joined the PPP in 1988 (at least in part because a falling out with then-prime minister Muhammad Ali Junejo sidelined Gilani within the PML), and quickly climbed the party’s ranks – at a time when the PPP itself was ascending into power following the mysterious plane crash that killed Zia ul-Haq in 1988. In his first race as a member of the PPP, Gilani managed to defeat Nawaz Sharif.

Gilani was Pakistan’s minister of tourism from March 1989 to January 1990, and its minister of housing and works from January to August 1990. He was also elected to parliament in 1990 and 1993, serving as speaker of the national assembly from 1993 to 1996. Benazir Bhutto personally selected him for this latter position; though some of her advisers were concerned about Gilani’s young age, she was impressed by what one Pakistani newspaper described as his “high-stake human management skills.”

During his political career, Gilani has on several occasions demonstrated the capacity for courageous stances against political pressures. Although he is known as a Bhutto loyalist, Gilani bucked the PPP in 1995 when, as assembly speaker, he issued orders for the release of parliamentarians whom the PPP ruling government had detained. When the interior ministry refused this request, he had the matter brought on record – a move the BBC has described as “a quite unprecedented action.”

Gilani apparently took a second courageous stance in 2001, when Musharraf imprisoned him for making illegal government appointments while assembly speaker. If Gilani’s claim is accurate that the allegations against him were fabrications designed to make him leave the PPP, he suffered through five years of imprisonment to stay in the party.

The fact that Gilani has shown such backbone in the past should allay the concerns expressed by some commentators that he will simply be a puppet of PPP head Asif Ali Zardari. Less difficult to brush aside, though, is that notion that Gilani’s tenure as prime minister may be short. Indrani Bagchi, the diplomatic editor of New Delhi’s The Times of India, told me that she expects Zardari to soon run for election.

The New York Times noted that Makhdoom Amin Fahim, an experienced politician who failed to earn the prime minister nomination after a bruising internal fight within the PPP, would “probably have been much harder to dislodge as prime minister” than Gilani “when Mr. Zardari was ready to take over.”

Further fuel was added to the idea that Gilani may simply be a placeholder when, at a press conference announcing his nomination, PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar discouraged questions about whether Gilani would serve merely an interim term.

Though Gilani has been known primarily as a domestic politician, Western countries are keenly interested in his anti-terrorism policies due to Pakistan’s increasing centrality in the global war on terror.

Gilani has told Pakistan’s national assembly with respect to the rise of militancy: “Unfortunately, some people have adopted violence as the way of expressing their opinion…. We are ready to talk to all those people who give up their weapons and adopt the path of peace.” He has proposed both political and economic reforms in tribal areas.

Haqqani told me that Gilani’s views on the war on terror “emphasize the political, socio-economic, and ideological dimensions in addition to the military and intelligence effort.”

Haqqani sees Gilani’s first speech after his ascension as prime minister as a pledge to continue the war against extremism while distinguishing between the terrorists who should be fought and the tribesmen who should be persuaded to lay down their arms. Haqqani believes this is a continuation of Bhutto’s blueprint for fighting terrorism, “a multi-dimensional approach to the struggle, with considerable emphasis on mobilizing popular support against the terrorists.”

Gilani has entered into a contentious arena where the alliance between the PPP and Sharif’s PML-N is fragile, and where Musharraf sees threats to his hold on power everywhere (including, quite reasonably, in Gilani’s freeing of the justices who were detained by Musharraf’s November declaration of a state of emergency). In a nuclear-armed state that has seen a sharp rise in religious militancy, the tall and soft-spoken Gilani may be the ideal man to chart these perilous waters.