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Running out of options

Updated August 13, 2014


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

The battle lines are more or less defined now with the approach of Aug 14. Unsurprisingly, Tahirul Qadri has joined hands with Imran Khan for the ‘azadi march’. His fanatically motivated supporters, drawn mainly from the lower middle classes across the Punjab heartland, may add spine to Imran Khan’s middle-class youth brigade with no experience of street agitation.

Besides, Qadri has set a more strident tenor for D-Day. Now there is no going back on the ‘revolution’, he has warned his allies. It is certainly the politics of expediency that has brought together Qadri and Khan on the same platform. But the radical rhetoric of the Canada-based cleric and his incitement to violence could turn him into a liability for the PTI and prove to be the undoing of the ‘azadi march’ even before it has taken off. Nevertheless the new coalition will shape the emerging political polarisation in the country.

Most other political parties are sitting on the fringes weighing their options as the confrontation comes to a head. What happens on Aug 14 is most likely to determine their future course of action. But more importantly, what are the choices for the beleaguered prime minister in this hour of reckoning?

Will the prime minister sail through the storm or be swept away by the tide?

Will he sail through the storm or be swept away by the tide? Having already lost the initiative in the battle of narratives, Nawaz Sharif faces a tough fight ahead to survive in power against strong odds. It is more than just a political battle; the government’s unresolved tension with the generals over Musharraf’s treason trial and a host of other issues will also matter in the endgame.

Having been thrown out of power halfway through his tenure twice, one expected Sharif to exercise discretion while tackling the mounting political tension. However, the dynamics of the present crisis are quite different from the past. Unlike his previous terms, when the power struggle at the top echelon cost him his government, Sharif is confronting a street show of force challenging the very legitimacy of his rule for the first time.

Surely, the threat is compounded by the conflict within the power structure. Sharif’s uninspiring and absent leadership does not help his cause for mobilising mass support for the impending battle. The concentration of power within a small family circle has exposed the weak ability of the government to motivate party cadres to stand up to the challenge

Yet there is no sign the prime minister realises the gravity of the situation. He still wonders where he has gone wrong. His speech on Monday at the launching of Vision 2025 had a defensive tone with no clarity on how he is going to fight the battle. He still seems to be in a state of denial about the gathering storm. His implicit inference to the military being the author of the script will surely further sour already tense civil-military relations at this crucial stage.

The Punjab government’s perilous handling of the Qadri issue — first the killing of 14 Minhajul Quran activists in June and then the recent blocking of the roads by containers — has cost the administration dearly. The spectacle of men and women crawling under the containers to reach their destinations in Lahore could not be more politically damaging for the Sharif brothers. The container strategy has failed to work and any move to detain Imran Khan and other leaders ahead of the Aug 14 sit-in will surely boomerang on the administration, fuelling uncontrollable violence across Punjab and perhaps giving more dead bodies for Qadri to exploit.

It would have been more sensible had the government permitted the PTI’s march in the first place. In that case, the onus of maintaining peace would squarely be on the opposition. Now Qadri’s joining the march has changed the matrix and any show of flexibility by the government would be taken as a sign of weakness. The space for Sharif regaining the initiative is fast shrinking.

Yet it is not the end of the road for the Sharif government. There are still a few options left for the troubled prime minister to regain the lost political space. His biggest political capital is the party’s absolute majority in the National Assembly that he has yet to put into action. A major problem for Sharif is his utter disregard for parliament. His rare appearances in the House and inability to initiate debate on major policy issues has rendered parliament ineffective and increased his isolation.

It took a long time for Sharif to embrace the other major parties represented in parliament and that too came when the chips were down. Inviting political leaders to the national security meeting to discuss the North Waziristan military operation may be a positive move.

But mixing the discussion on security issues with politics in the presence of the military brass raises some relevant questions about the actual purpose of bringing together the civilian and military leadership. The image of a line of army generals in their battle fatigues sitting across the table from the political leaders was presumably meant to send a signal to the public of the military’s backing for the government.

What was the idea behind the decision to telecast live the prime minister’s opening remarks concerning the political crisis in what was supposed to be an in-camera security briefing? This kind of game is counterproductive. The government is expected to take a saner approach in such a situation.

Sharif may be down, but he is not out of the game yet. It is neither a 1993 nor a 1999 situation when he lost the power struggle. But the wrong moves could land him into the same situation. It is not just the issue of facing up to the challenge thrown by the Qadri-Imran combine, Sharif also needs to address other problems concerning governance and the economy to ensure his survival in power and avert the derailing of a fledgling democratic process.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, Aug 13th, 2014