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Nawaz is back

November 08, 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

WHAT a difference a few days can make. Or weeks, anyway. Nawaz is back.

The PTI is falling away. Parliament is complete once more, and completely under control. Civ-mil may be more skewed than ever, but it seems to matter less than ever.

The loon in the neighbourhood is next door now. And India is fretting over eroding liberties, secularists in Pakistan are going gaga over some prime ministerial words.

Neither pandering to the right-wing nor helping out the left — that’s pretty much new Nawaz on social issues.

It’s good to be Nawaz again.

So let’s go over that bit by bit. Start with this liberal business — is Nawaz really a man transformed?

Say this for the PML-N — it has been neither a liberal’s nightmare nor a conservative’s dream this time round. Two years at the centre, seven in Punjab and there’s very little by way of kooky stuff put out there.

You only have to glance over to India to know what a crusading right-winger can get up to in double-quick time.

Like much else he’s done this time round, Nawaz in the social realm has been marked more by diffidence than decisiveness.

So what’s up with this liberal-Pakistan business? Before you get too hopeful, have a look at the speech itself:

“Our democratic and economic journey has not been without setbacks. But the Pakistani nation has once and for all decided that its future lies in a liberal and democratic country, where the private sector thrives and no one is left behind.

“I can confidently say that our direction is set, and we are now implementing our nation’s economic and democratic agenda. And indeed, driving a democratic Pakistan forward in its journey towards an economically vibrant future is a labour of love for me.” (emphasis added)

Yep, he was talking about a liberal economy, not a liberal society. Y’know, like he always has been and always will be.

Pro-business is not pro-what-you-do-is-your-own-business. Still, in line with this new version of Nawaz, he didn’t make much of an effort to clarify what he meant.

Neither pandering to the right-wing nor helping out the left — that’s pretty much new Nawaz on social issues.

On to the electoral stuff. The old warning has been reversed — objects in the rear-view mirror may be further than they appear. The N-League may not have pulled away, but the PTI has fallen behind.

Now, there’s a new force in between — the independents. Proof of something to everyone. For PTI, the rise of the independent is proof that, try as the PML-N might, the thugs of Punjab can’t muscle their way to a one-party state.

For the PML-N, there’s some internal concern, but mostly elation at watching the PTI slip to No 3. Independents pose no systemic threat — they can’t do anything other than get absorbed by a party.

For now, the independents are really betwixt and between: both good and bad news for the N-League.

The good news for the PML-N is that most independents are aspirational N-Leaguers — for whatever reason the party wasn’t able to give them a ticket, so they contested as independents.

The results may say No 1 and No 2 are PML-N and independent, but it’s really PML-N(1) and PML-N(2). You’d take it if you could get it.

The bad news is that a breakdown in party discipline — the inability or unwillingness of the local leaderships to nominate one candidate and have all factions back him — can give candidates funny ideas come general election time.

You don’t want everyone at the local level to have too much confidence they can win on their own — they may end up bolting for another party — you know which — in 2018.

Still, N-League has some room to manoeuvre. General elections may be about parties, but they’re also two-tiered: provincial and national.

To win at the centre, the N-League needs 80-90pc of Punjab, but to win at the provincial level it only needs more than half.

Right now, the PML-N has an eye-watering majority in the Punjab Assembly, a percentage dominance that exceeds the Punjab seat count of the party in the National Assembly.

That leaves the N-League with room to play — potentially diverting the battles and the fierce independent energies towards the provincial tier and keeping the national level insulated.

Which leaves civ-mil. The surrender may be greater than ever, but does it really matter just now?

On the external front, Nawaz was a one-trick pony: India. The foreign policy triumvirate may be India-Afghanistan-US, but what do the other two matter?

On Afghanistan, Nawaz has no great insight; on the US, there’s no real divergence from the boys. India was the difference externally and India has decided to go a bit loony.

So, even if he controls nothing, it’s not like Nawaz was about to get anything. In which case, may as well act like he’s getting along famously with the boys.

When the world is recoiling at the ugliness in India and India wasn’t about to give you anything, why not beat up on India too?

Internally, Nawaz’s greatest error has been glossed over and, as a bonus, he gets to share in the big, new glow.

Few hold it against Nawaz that he preferred talks over Zarb-i-Azb. Now, with the military hammering away at the TTP, Nawaz has been able to preside at a time of real calm. Thank you, Raheel Sharif.

Oh what a difference a few weeks can make. It’s good to be Nawaz again.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2015

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