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Here we go again

May 04, 2014

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SILLY season is upon us again. Everywhere, a crisis.

Nowhere, allegedly, a government.

Karachi is reeling, politics is churning, dialogue is going nowhere, even load-shedding is back with a vengeance.

And Nawaz is in London.

So this is the theory: Nawaz has bitten off more than he can chew. He somehow goaded the military on Musharraf, unleashed a media favourite on the ISI and is clumsily defying a national consensus in favour of whacking the TTP.

Now, the counter-squeeze is on.

Hang on. Tahirul Qadri is relevant again? And Imran is going to use the street to bring down the PML-N government in Islamabad?

OK, good luck.

Meanwhile, in the real world, let’s try a more prosaic explanation instead.

What is Imran doing? He’s doing what any clever opposition with no chance in hell of either triggering an election or winning one right now would do.

He’s trying to keep alive whatever few doubts there are about the PML-N win in Punjab, to undermine in what­ever tiny way he can its legitimacy as a popularly elected government.

And he’s being Imran. Which means he’s figured out the politics of opposition: stay visible, stay loud, stay aggressive and don’t ever let your opponent monopolise the political narrative.

Beyond that, Imran’s got nothing — and everyone in the PTI knows that.

As does the PML-N, but Imran long ago got under their skins, hence all the N-Leaguers rising in agitation. That still doesn’t change reality.

And reality is this: politically, PML-N is pretty darn comfortable at the moment.

If there were an election tomorrow, the PML-N would probably double its seat count. They’re already looking pretty good for re-election in 2018. For everyone else, the first realistic shot is 2023.

Because this is politics. Where objective scorecards don’t matter, votes do. And right now, the PML-N is giving the voters pretty much what they want.

Start with the apparently worst performing bit of the lot: dialogue with the TTP. Maybe there won’t be a deal, maybe Nisar will fail, maybe Nawaz was wrong. Doesn’t matter.

Nawaz has already proved he is genuine. Genuinely concerned about protecting Punjab, genuinely interested in finding a peaceable solution, genuinely committed to making whatever concessions are needed.

If you’re a voter sitting in Punjab, what’s not to like about that? Your guy has got your back. He was even willing to stand up to the army to save your home from burning or your kids getting blown up on their way to school.

If dialogue fails now, at least it bought months of relative quiet. If dialogue fails now, at least it won’t be for a lack of trying. If dialogue fails now, why would you blame Nawaz?

And that’s the worst performing bit in the PML-N portfolio.

Or take the other thing that comes close: differences with the army over Musharraf and this perception that somehow the Geo war on the ISI was instigated by the PML-N.

The army is popular in Punjab and its middle classes. Much as Punjab and its middle classes may love Nawaz, they are unlikely to be happy about their trusted and vital state institutions coming under seemingly gratuitous attack.

But here’s the thing, a Pakistani thing: when two favourites fight, the impulse isn’t to pick sides, but to hope they hug it out.

So a conciliatory speech, a few photos of them sitting together, a few words from each side about how they love both democracy and the army — and everyone will be happy again. It’s the Pakistani way.

Electricity could have hurt Nawaz — in the same way the last election was a referendum on electricity. But Nawaz and his lieutenants have been clever, getting the messaging right, even if stumbling on actual reform of the electricity sector.

So, as blackouts spiked, out came Abid Sher Ali with his fabulous plan to punish symbols and institutions of the state for not paying their bills. No one will be spared! It was great theatre.

Meanwhile, the men with the gravitas, Khwaja Asif and Nawaz himself, are pleading for patience and promising they will deliver by the time their term is up — essentially using personal capital to blunt the very sharpest edge of public criticism.

If those are the bad bits and the vulnerabilities, it doesn’t take much to imagine the good bits are looking a whole lotta good right now.

Remember, this is politics. It’s what the voter thinks that matters, not whether the performance meets some theoretical bar of approval.

So, where’s the crisis?

The danger, to the extent there is some, remains the opposite of what the conspiracy theorists are peddling.

It’s not that Nawaz can’t get his way — on Musharraf, on dialogue, on whatever. It’s not that Nawaz is there for the taking, in Punjab or in Islamabad. It’s not that Nawaz is out of his depth.

It’s what happens once all of that is proved wrong and Nawaz is once again master of all that he surveys. Fear the all-powerful Nawaz, not the man who is still inching his way towards there.

As for conspiracies, try this counter-conspiracy on for size. Hasn’t the PTI effectively ridden to the rescue of Geo by switching the topic from the Geo-ISI feud?

Wasn’t the PML-N’s fiercest complaint in the run-up to last May’s election that the media was rooting for the PTI? Is this exquisitely timed, great ratings tamasha the PTI repaying Geo for last year?

Ah, conspiracies. You can spin them any which way. Still, doesn’t change reality.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm