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Ninety days

September 01, 2013

QUESTION: what does it take to miss a PPP government? Answer: a PML-N government.

Ninety days was a false construct, a sexy, snappy number that deliberately missed the point: these are the first assemblies to begin their terms more confident they will complete them than not.

Somehow, though, 90 days became a false landmark. And 90 days later, some old truths have begun to reveal themselves again.

In truth, it’s difficult to miss the last PPP government.

It’s one thing to be incompetent, another to be corrupt and something else altogether to be corrupt and incompetent at the same time — a combination the last government had seemingly perfected.

But the PPP is also like an unruly child: angered as you are by their actions, scared as you are for everyone’s safety, you can’t quite stay mad at them. It’s not like they can be anything but themselves, can they?

The incompetence in government, though, has a fascinating flipside: the PPP kills it in opposition.

Just look at them — Raza Rabbani and Khursheed Shah — tearing great chunks out of the government with their slashing comments and cutting questions. They’re alert, they’re masters of parliamentary rules and convention, they never let an opportunity go, and they’re always on the hunt for something to hurt the government with.

Even when someone inconsequential from the provincial field in Sindh pipes up now in the media, you can’t help but smile. The PPP has got its mojo back.

A ragtag, happy-go-lucky sort, nothing suits the PPP more than being freed of the burden of governance.

Sure, they’re still in control of rural Sindh, but does anyone really think that place can be rescued with even the best government in the world? Not in our lifetimes — which, luckily for the PPP, means they get a free pass at home.

Governing brings out the worst in the PPP. Often, they don’t even know that they don’t know — cluelessness taken to another level. But chuck them to the other side of the aisle and, suddenly, it’s like a completely different PPP. Or the same PPP, just with its better side on display.

The PML-N? Ponderous in opposition, ponderous in government — it’s pretty much the same, except the spotlight is bigger and more intense when you cross the aisle.

The N-League’s problem, one of them at least, is that they’re just not very good at explaining themselves. Or anything they’re doing. Or anything they’re thinking of doing.

Take this business of the death penalty.

The N-League wanted to reverse the PPP’s moratorium on the death penalty. Good idea or bad idea, the reasoning may be of little relevance to the miserable chaps sitting on death row who suddenly realise they may be marched to the gallows after all, but to the rest of us, in whose name the state wants to go back to executing convicts, reasons do matter.

Except the PML-N made no attempt to explain it. Was it populist bloodlust, the PML-N pandering to its religiously conservative base? Does Nawaz think the death penalty is a deterrent, in addition to being a religious obligation? Is it a first step towards a planned reinvigoration of the Islamising process?

Who knows. All we got was a notification that the moratorium is to be ended.

And so, instead of angering or alienating or alarming possibly just one segment of the population, the PML-N ended up agitating everyone.

The businessmen came calling: umm, this may screw up our export plans; some of the Western markets are rather squeamish about executions and the like.

The TTP came knocking: hang on, we’ll go to the afterlife and all the goodness it has to offer when we want to, not when you tell us.

The human rights folk and the small but vocal — and yes, powerful — liberal, secular constituency were up in arms: monsters! You can’t drag us back into the dark ages!

Who knows, had the PML-N gone to the floor of parliament and articulated the reinstatement of the death penalty as part of its religiously conservative identity, the TTP may have been less ferocious in its threats — when Islam meets Islam, a gentleman’s agreement is often sought.

Of course, you suspect the TTP would still threaten — the code of ‘no one gets left behind’ is a terrific recruiting and cadre-galvanising trick — but then the PML-N could have earned brownie points with its political base: look at Mian sahib, he is truly the lion of Punjab, bows to no one, the crowd may have murmured appreciatively.

Or if — a remote if — the death-penalty threat was just leverage to get the TTP talking, then a signal to the businessmen would have been helpful. Because then the businessmen would be thinking: a few more exports lost versus the possibility of the hellish internal security being fixed.

But none of that happened. And even now, an about-turn on the U-turn that may or may not be reversed again, nobody knows just what the PML-N is up to.

Which leaves the possibility that maybe the PML-N itself doesn’t know.

Question: what does it take to miss a PPP government? Answer: a PML-N government.

Does the PML-N care? Not really. For there is an all-important, be-all-and-end-all, fundamental difference: the N-League continues to win — elections, that is.

Huff and puff, scream or yell, implore or deplore, go blue in the face — as long as the PML-N has its folksy, seemingly guileless, guy-next-door leader, Nawaz, who the Punjabi voter adores, the party is OK with the critics having a go at it.

A government that knows how to win and an opposition that knows how to oppose — not really the best of any world, but it’s only been 90 days. A few 90s more and we’ll all know more.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm