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The PM of Punjab

March 09, 2014


SO he saves Punjab. Good for Punjab. What’s in it for everyone else? Don’t bother.

It’s not just this talks business, aka the Nisar and Nawaz show. There the goal is simple: buy some time, stop stuff from going boom, save Punjab.

He’ll probably succeed.

But it’s so much more than this talks business. The prime minister from Punjab has become the Prime Minister of Punjab.

Anything Nawaz does, all you can see is Punjab, the critics and opposition are grumbling and muttering.

Economy? Punjab grows. Trade? Punjab grows. Privatisation? Punjab buys. Roads? Punjab moves. Electricity? Punjab hums.

It makes sense for a politician to protect his base. But this?

Rewind nine months. Last summer, it looked like polite, and welcome, deference. Nawaz was respecting other mandates. So Sindh to PPP, KP to PTI and Balochistan to the NP.

That Nawaz declined to push in KP and slapped down Zehri in Balochistan was the sign of a politician reborn, a statesman democrat who was willing to put country before self.

Nawaz said all the right things and, with his foray into Karachi, seemed intent on being a national prime minister.

Those days are long gone.

As with everything Nawaz, it’s hard to pin down what, exactly, Punjab first means.

Is protecting Punjab about letting others sink? KP and the PTI feel they have been set up, trapped in a burning province just to finish off the PTI’s hopes of ever winning Punjab.

But just as likely as malign interest is pure disinterest. You get the feeling that he — Nawaz — can’t be bothered. He’ll love what will love him back, and nothing loves Nawaz as much as Punjab.

The really worrying bit? Word from his world is that the Nawaz-Punjab love fest is only set to deepen. Good luck, rest of Pakistan.

Civ-Mil: Drowned out by this whole talks business has been another interesting little development. Trade with India, the holy grail of economic revival, was supposed to get a boost by the end of Feb.

Khurram Dastagir, newly sworn in as a full minister, had travelled to India and made all the right noises about getting trade normalisation done and getting it done quickly. Except, after returning to Pakistan, Khurram seemed to change his mind.

What happened? There are three theories — theories being all that there are in the murky world of civ-mil and India-Pak relations.

Theory one: the boys are OK with trade normalisation, but not OK with Nawaz’s way of going about it.

Keep us in the loop, use the proper institutional channels and stop messing around with all these semi-official forays of Shahbaz and the like, the boys said.

This, the charitable explanation, amounting to: we’re OK with trade, but not if you try and do this without our input and addressing our concerns.

Theory two: the disagreement was not just about how to go about normalising ties with India, but about Nawaz’s real intentions. That, by shutting the boys out, Nawaz wants to go much further on India than the boys are willing to countenance or accept. So, by voicing complaints about the way Nawaz was handling trade negotiations, the boys were sending a warning shot across the bow: we’re watching very, very closely, Mr Prime Minister.

Theory three: Nawaz thought that if he dangled the carrot of trade normalisation, Manmohan would visit Pakistan, but when it became clear the Indian PM wasn’t going to bite, Nawaz pulled the plug and decided to wait until after the Indian elections.

So which one is it? From the outside, it’s impossible to say. What is relatively easy to guess is that civ-mil at the moment isn’t being shaped wholly by the talk-or-fight debate.

Also, there are three principals here, not two: PM, chief and DGI. One of them is set to go home in October. And two of them are rumoured to be not too thrilled about the third.

In civ-mil, there are always wheels within wheels.

Zardari, Part II: After Mumbai, Zardari pulled down the shutters, surrendered civ-mil and focused on just one thing: getting his government past the finish line.

Nawaz hasn’t had a Mumbai moment yet. Raheel is still settling in, there is zero likelihood of a coup anytime soon, and the boys are looking to cleanse themselves of the Kayani era.

But could Nawaz the Prime Minister of Punjab be an emulation of the post-Mumbai Zardari?

Protecting what is most precious to him, focusing on that to the exclusion of all else, and letting whoever the hell else do whatever the hell else they want?

Capacity, will, blah, blah — so much of this is often looked at through the prism of what ought to be, not what is. And what is — what is often more real and more present than anything else — is fear.

Unlike the Zardari of five years ago, Nawaz has the benefit of experience and doesn’t need his fears to be realised, Mumbai-like, for him to sense the dangers around him.

So why not just stick to being the prime minister of Punjab, a narrow goal of self-interest and survival that sends a message to everyone else that he isn’t here to cause trouble?

After all, if the much-loathed Zardari managed to survive five years with his one-point agenda, why can’t Nawaz do the same with his own one-point agenda: look after Punjab and wash his hands of everything else?

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm