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Analysis: Moment of truth for Sharif and Khan

August 08, 2014


PTI chief Imran Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
PTI chief Imran Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

EARLY on Thursday morning, Jamaat-i-Islami chief Sirajul Haq was busy meeting his aides in Islamabad and dealing with questions from the press.

Wednesday evening had been equally hectic when he held meetings all over the capital, reaching across party lines to intransigent politicians holed up in their respective residences and positions.

“In politics, it is the norm to ask big, but it is also in the nature of the beast that solutions are reached through give and take,” he said when asked about the seemingly impossible demands of PTI chief Imran Khan.

However, the JI chief did not reveal details about what he discussed with Khan and with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He did reiterate that the ball was in the government’s court.

Asif Zardari has advised Nawaz Sharif to consider some demands being made by PTI

“The prime minister said he would consult his advisers and get back to me,” he said, adding that he had communicated four ‘options’ or ‘demands’ from the PTI to the government.

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Though he didn’t divulge details, the capital is rife with rumours about what the options may be — ranging from the resignation of the ECP to a recount in constituencies.

All the JI chief would say is that they “relate to what has happened up till now since May.”

His words can be interpreted to mean that the four points relate to the May 2013 election.

After all, the parliamentary reforms committee has been constituted; but this has not proved enough for PTI that is looking to the past as well as the future.

In this regard, the PTI — to an extent — enjoys the support of the JI and the PPP.

Farhatullah Babar frankly admits that the former president has advised the prime minister to heed some PTI demands.

Explaining that the PPP is in favour of electoral reform through the parliament, he makes it clear that the party also supports a recount in some constituencies, though he does not specify which ones.

“This recount must be a result of the legal process — they should be ordered by the electoral tribunals and not the government.”

One can then conclude that negotiations between the ruling party and Khan will focus on the past — there is little disagreement on how to proceed on reform.

The PML-N is willing to talk — finally. This is evident from the tone of PML-N’s senior leadership including Sharif junior who gave an exclusive television interview on Wednesday night. But before the firecrackers can be pulled out to commence the celebrations, there is the issue of what the common ground — for May 2013 — will be.

The PTI will have to backtrack from the resignation demand — Khan’s huffing and puffing notwithstanding.

Members of the party are reluctant to speak when confronted with this question — one party leader told Dawn, on the condition of anonymity, “The situation is fluid”.

Another senior party member, Shafqat Mahmood, who is also representing the party in the National Assembly, would only go so far as to say that the “core committee is meeting on Sunday where the final formulation will be decided.” He hastens to add that the “March is on”.

His words can be interpreted to mean the PTI is still to figure out its detailed plan of action, which further indicates that the party might settle for less than resignation especially because its demands — as they stand at the moment — defy logic.

The prime minister’s resignation — even if a peaceful but long sit-in provokes it — will not resolve anything. If the assembly stays intact, Sharif will simply nominate a prime minister and continue to sit pretty — as did Asif Ali Zardari.

If, on the other hand, Sharif advises the president to call new elections, when and how will the electoral reforms take place? And Khan will be forced to contest another election under a system he finds unfair.

Add to this mix, the reports of the reluctance of PTI’s existing parliamentarians to go home and there is more than enough reason for Khan to accept something short of what he is demanding — if he behaves rationally and not like a man who is high at the thought of power.

Khan would also do well to remember that resignations result from arm twisting and not Tahrir Square like sit-ins, be it a Hosni Mobarik, Musharraf or Nixon.

So far, there is no evidence that anyone is willing to carry out this arm twisting as the political parties want the elected set up to continue.

So can the army be expected to step in?

But would the Khan want to be seen as the military’s B team? And even if he does, does the army need a B team, which is a requirement when a coup is carried out?

The environment is not conducive to the boots marching in.

Those dreaming or whispering of the Kakar/Kayani moment are also off the mark. (The Kakar moment is when Chief of Staff General Waheed Kakar intervened to end the fighting between Nawaz Sharif and Ghulam Ishaq Khan during the former’s first term and forced them both to resign after which fresh elections were called. Kayani’s moment came during the 2009 march)

Even if Raheel Sharif can be bothered to make a call in the middle of the night, what will he tell Khan? That he will force PM Sharif to resign and dissolve the assemblies? Or that Khan should turn back?

One can only imagine the criticism that will be directed at the military if it exercises either of the two options?

In 2009, Kayani’s intervention restored the political status-quo (Sharifs in the Punjab and Zardari at the centre) — and it came at a moment when both the PML-N and the PPP were headed for a crash collision.

But if this is what Raheel Sharif is expected to do (tell the PML-N to stay put and also force them to commit to a recount) then why wait for the military to avert the crash?

The political parties can surely do this without allowing space to the military. All it needs is for the government to pull a political rabbit out of the hat.

It has to figure out what it can offer on the 2013 election results that will be legally and politically acceptable to the PTI and others. This will mean, at the very least, putting aside the fears that if any probe reveals any irregularity on a critical seat such as that of the speaker or a federal minister, it will not just cause the government major embarrassment but also dent its legitimacy. This apparently is why the government has ignored this issue for so long, allowing the date for the PTI’s March to come so close before it woke up.

But there is still some time to find a solution to the problem that must be causing the inhabitant of the PM office a sleepless night or two.

But if Sharif can sacrifice his sleep and find an answer, he will get the credit for ending the political uncertainty that has afflicted the country, drawing attention away from worthier issues. Surely, this is far better than allowing his army chief to hog all the glory or sitting quietly till the PTI wallahs reach Islamabad where some unforeseen incident of violence will allow the situation to spiral out of control. Then all bets are off.

The writer is Dawn’s Resident Editor in Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2014