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Stumbling transition

May 11, 2014

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SILLY season it may be, but that doesn’t mean it means nothing or that there aren’t any consequences.

The government isn’t falling. There is no coup happening. Life will go on. Yet, short of that, the transition is stumbling in subtle, but important ways.

PPP government last time round, PML-N government in the saddle right now — as different as different can be, but somehow, there’s a pattern repeating itself.

And the PML-N seems just as helpless and clueless as the PPP was.

Rewind to the first year and a half of the PPP stint. Once Musharraf was out, as the unity of the democratic forces frayed in a natural and inevitable way, the PPP quickly found itself under all sorts of pressure.

Because a lot of it was self-inflicted, it was hard to feel much sympathy. And there was no emerging pattern to be discerned back then.

But stuff did happen. Like the immediate slapping down after the ISI-under-the-interior-ministry fiasco. Like Zardari musing about no-first-strike and normalising ties with India and being patronisingly dismissed in private.

Mumbai changed everything, but it wasn’t enough. Infamously, the reaction to Kerry-Lugar happened.

What did it all mean? It was difficult to figure out then because Zardari was so eager to retreat anyway. Everything was about the one-point agenda: five full years.

But, with all the impreciseness of analogies and different sets of circumstances, now a pattern is emerging.

It’s bifurcation: you guys deal with the domestic stuff — economy, service delivery, infrastructure — we’ll deal with the big-boy stuff — foreign policy and key elements of national security.

And it’s happening to Nawaz now.

Somehow, 12-odd months into a civilian’s term in this latest, post-Mush round of transition, the civilians find themselves hounded.

The circumstances change, the actors are different, the facts elusive, but it’s a subtle shift that starts to enforce itself: coexistence is possible, but the boys will decide who gets what.

As with Zardari, with Nawaz too it’s hard to immediately figure out that the same pattern is imposing itself because much of the language of bifurcation is Nawaz’s own. So of his four Es, three of them are the soft stuff: energy, economy and education.

But the Balochistan package is the big, early sign of retreat. Fifty billion rupees, is it? Or maybe 30 billion will materialise in the end.

Who knows, who cares — the fact that a year into his third stint as prime minister, Nawaz’s grand plan for Balochistan is economic, not security, means the surrender is on.

If Nawaz wants to talk infrastructure and economy in Balochistan, what it really means is that he doesn’t want to talk about the other stuff.

The stuff he’s stepping away from. The stuff the boys control. The stuff that is the actual problem.

Or take India. The circle in the know on the trade deal knows why it was called off. But the PML-N took the blame and let itself look stupid. Why?

Because the alternative was to let everyone know what really happened — which would mean everyone would know who still wields the veto and who still doesn’t know what to do about it.

Now, you have this silliness of Imran’s. The PTI will swear it isn’t taking cues from the boys and is doing it’s own thing. Maybe it is.

But there’s this swirl of curious politics and thoughts are turning to dark matters, meaning this PTI silliness is having an effect.

An effect of the government looking briefly over its shoulder. An effect of the government beginning to see shapes in the shadows. An effect of the government wondering what may be afoot.

All of that translates into a government being pushed, slow motion, into a defensive crouch. It will never be visible to all. The government will still talk up all its projects and investments and roads and dams and sound like it’s doing exactly what it wants to do.

But that’s what governments do: talk a good talk.

If Nawaz allows himself to be corralled — and really, there’s little doubt that the corralling has begun — like Zardari did before him, then the bifurcation will become more and more apparent: one side doing what it can on the soft stuff; the other side still in charge of the stuff that really matters.

But if the civilians are so easy to bend and if neither Zardari nor Nawaz really know how to twist civ-mil towards the civilians, why is corralling so important? Why harry and harass and every little while turn up the political temperature just so?

Because a distracted enemy is an enemy never really in a position to plot an attack of its own.

Running around shouting down the PTI and Imran, pooh-poohing TuQ, dealing with dignity and pride issues in the rank and file and among the council of elders, holding hands to plead for patience — none of that leaves much time to try and wrest the big things away.

The core interests. Foreign policy. National security. Commercial empire. Budget demands. Job security of the chief.

But if Nawaz knows this and Zardari quickly figured it out, why do they still fall into the trap? Why not up the pace of the transition? Why accept bifurcation?

The only answer: Nawaz agrees with Zardari. One government, two government, three government, four — and maybe then it will be time.

Until then, you do your thing and let them do their thing.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm