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Missing the point

May 18, 2014

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WHY bother? It’d be like waking up from a nightmare and discovering you’re in a lunatic asylum. Where even the shrinks are crazy.

Something is unravelling. You can see it, you can feel it, but it’s hard to figure out exactly what. Is this a temporary convulsion, a harbinger, the end itself?

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe all three. There’s just no way of knowing.

But in these complex times, there’s at least one simplicity: yet another government is missing the point.

See no crisis, hear no crisis, speak no crisis — three-monkeys-like, the PML-N seems to think that if it doesn’t react, nothing will happen.

But stuff is already happening. Nobody can explain the how, but folk are already sure about the why and the what: the powers-that-be want mid-term elections.

To put it more bluntly, the boys want Nawaz out. It starts with Musharraf. But there’s also dialogue with the TTP and relations with India. Then there are the noxious media wars that have erupted. And, if you want to get really psychological about it, if they hated Zardari, they fear Nawaz.

It’s a grim picture. Yes, Nawaz picked this fight over Musharraf. Yes, it was a bad idea. Yes, the army is really, really upset about it. But deploying the usual suspects to knock out a government?

Over an ex-chief and a dialogue that everyone seems to think isn’t going to work and trying to fix stuff with India without addressing its terrorism fears?

OK, fine. Let’s work with that for a minute.

They want him out. They want mid-term elections. They’re determined. They have options. They’ve convinced themselves. And now they’re convincing others.

But how are they going to do it? Harry and harass Nawaz until he quits? What if he doesn’t quit? Make Pakistan ungovernable?

And all because of — what? What is this great sin that Nawaz has already committed that justifies doing to him what wasn’t done to Asif?

Right, so no plausible answers to the only two questions that matter: does the situation really merit pulling the trigger and is there a trigger to pull in the first place?

Which means what it meant in the last round: plenty of doom and gloom that’s low on actual doom and high on manufactured gloom. I.E. Nawaz’s job is secure, but it will rarely look secure.

But there is a problem: already, Nawaz is starting to look like a passenger, not the driver. And it’s because he wants to focus on his agenda, not respond to events.

Events though have a nasty way of derailing agendas and mandates.

There may be no obvious link between the vicious media wars and Nawaz going about his business. There may also be no obvious link between the PTI politically harassing the PML-N and the government getting on with its infrastructure and investment plans.

But — and Nawaz knows this — politics isn’t always, or even necessarily, about substance, it’s about form too. And right now the PML-N is getting bent out of shape.

There’s nothing really the government can do about the media wars. Before it could even think about doing anything, it had already been accused of being on the anti-ISI side. And none of the warring barons give a monkey’s wrench about a government they know they aren’t answerable to.

And yet, doing nothing shouldn’t have been an option. Because doing nothing, saying nothing, has meant the government has made itself look irrelevant, a bystander.

Oh look, it’s the ISI pulling the strings again, folk are saying. Oh look, there’s something afoot, people are whispering.

And nowhere is the government.

There was another spectacular missed opportunity. Imran went public with his May 11 plan very late. Late in the sense of opportunity: Nawaz was headed to Iran and the details of such trips are worked out well in advance.

But if it was too late to line up a big announcement, why not at least try and steal some of Imran’s thunder?

After all, Nawaz and his PML-N have been beaten up over the $1.5bn Saudi gift, every last cent of which was supposed to be an anti-Iran payment. And here, just a couple of months later, Nawaz is roaming around Iran.

Sell it, dammit.

If you don’t have anything substantial, take the gimmicky route. A lion from Raiwind as a present! Is there even a photo that anyone can remember from that trip all of a week ago? A memorable comment? Any comment? A smile?

And this while Imran was in Islamabad — thundering about stolen mandates and rigged elections.

Nawaz had nothing to show on Iran, so he didn’t even try to dress it up. The PML-N doesn’t want to get burned — or burned anymore than it already has been — in the media wars, so it’s said nothing. What it has done is plod along and stick to its message: energy, economy, extremism. Great. Much needed. Vital.

But who the hell cares when the whole place seems on the verge of going to hell?

Nawaz is missing the point. It’s not that he doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s that he thinks he can set the agenda. The rest — the stuff everyone else is doing — is just noise to Nawaz.

Except it doesn’t work that way.

On message but out of touch isn’t a good combination for a government. Secure but irrelevant isn’t a good place to be. Safe in reality, but vulnerable in popular perception narrows your options.

The squeeze is on. But Nawaz seems unable to change gears or switch lanes. Which leaves him vulnerable to someone else doing it for him.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2014