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The Nawaz way

January 03, 2016

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

IT may or may not get him the results, but at least he’s back in the game. Nawaz. A couple of months ago, Raheel was wiping the floor with him. Now, Nawaz is back. But how?

Team Nawaz, predictably, credits the man himself. He’s smarter than you think. He’s learned. He’s adapted. It’s the rest of us who haven’t caught on.

Maybe. But the rising arc of Nawaz has intersected with the faltering star of Raheel. Ex post — after the event — explanations tend to be a little cleaner than reality, but this is a story that writes itself.

It starts with that fateful press release and the weeklong trip to the US. Until then, the boys were kings, again. Raheel was a rock star and the country wanted to make him chief-for-life. He could do no wrong.

And then he did. It started out, as with most mistakes, innocently enough. He had gone to the PM and lobbied for more urgency on parts of the NAP. In military parlance, complementary actions were needed to solidify the battlefield gains.

It was true enough. The civilians weren’t doing enough and weren’t too pushed about doing more. But in high politics, the truth can sometimes be beside the point. Generals, especially the crusading types with an eye on the clock, can lose sight of that.

So the next day, back in the Council of Elders, surrounded by uniformed allies, the truth probably seemed more urgent than ever. Something had to be done to shake the civilians out of their stupor. For the greater good. For Pakistan. And so the ISPR put out that statement, the one with the bit about governance and such stuff.


Stable economy, internal security — Pakistan was looking good again. And suddenly Nawaz was everywhere again.


It made sense. Raheel was jetting off to the US for a week. It would give the civilians time to pull something or the other together and would go down well on his travels — look, America, we’re really serious about this fighting terror business; now give us some more stuff.

And for exactly that reason it didn’t make any sense. To anyone outside the bubble, anyway. There’s a thin line between chief extraordinaire and hectoring dictator. Pakistan wanted the former; Raheel seemed to be slipping towards the latter.

The slip coincided with the other guy’s rise. Nawaz had started to look prime ministerial again. Opponents were being dispatched right, left and centre. The public was topping up his political capital again.

By-election victories, local-government dominance — it really was PML-N, basically Nawaz, and then everyone else. It’s the one thing politicians have that generals don’t — they can recapitalise with a fresh, legitimate mandate even after a poor spell.

It may seem unfair if you’re a spectacularly successful general, but that’s the deficiency of democracy — it lets the civilians rise again. Especially if circumstances are going their way.

Stable economy, internal security — Pakistan was looking good again. And suddenly Nawaz was everywhere again, inaugurating this project and initiating that scheme and making folk think — maybe his priorities are wrong, but stuff sure is looking right. Go Nawaz.

Still, a faltering star and a rising arc don’t quite make for all that seems to have come together. There is also a personal dynamic.

While outsiders mutter about Nawaz’s weight and droopy demeanour, insiders talk of a prime ministerial mien. He may not go late into the night or work over weekends, but he’s developed his own approach: the marathon meetings.

It’s worked particularly well with the boys. Long meetings, running into the hours, listening patiently, allowing everyone to speak, interjecting occasionally — and then doing it all over again.

Another long meeting, same topic, same issues, circling round and round the same things. He doesn’t say yes, he doesn’t say no — it’s seemingly the anti-thesis of decisive leadership.

But civ-mil isn’t about ruthless competition and hard-charging CEOs; it’s about sussing out red lines — and that’s where the Nawaz approach has worked particularly well. Because it’s never a one-shot game.

So, like with the Karachi operation, the PM hints about priorities and focus and narrowness of goals, but also green lights some of the more overtly political aspects of the operation. Eventually, because of the real world reaction or the boys’ inability to make dream and reality meet, a course correction becomes necessary. The civilian advice seems sensible.

But because of that round-and-round-and-then-round-again approach, the boys aren’t humiliated and don’t feel outwitted. It seems more natural. An almost-cooperative outcome. The Nawaz way.

There’s a fourth peg, though: Raheel himself. The man seems hesitant. Has he been shackled by cohabitation — the institutional decision of the boys to not take over, but to control the national security agenda? Or is he undone by the politics of his job?

The November tumble is emblematic. He pushed first, but when the civilians pushed back, he didn’t seem to have a counter. It turned out the worst of all worlds — a chief whose nerves had to be soothed by the civilians.

Weeks later, Nawaz moved on India — and the military has had to follow. The NSA change seems a miscalculation too — the boys thought they had got themselves a direct line to the outside world; instead, it’s Nawaz who’s gone into full foreign-minister mode.

He gave them a seat, but then grabbed hold of the conversation — a ruse so subtle that you can scarcely believe it’s Nawaz. But there he is, strutting about like the dual PM and FM that he ministerially is.

It may or may not last. But 2016 could be Nawaz’s best year since 2013. A three-term prime minister enjoying a mid-term boom — who said this place is so predictable?

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2016