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An impasse

Updated October 23, 2016


AS promised, normal service today. There is one of two ways the weeks ahead could unfold. First, the less obvious, more likely path.

This dharna business goes nowhere. A new chief is appointed. The kerfuffle of the last couple of weeks is quickly forgotten.

And Nawaz emerges the strongest PM since possibly ZAB and certainly since the heavy-mandate ’90s version of himself.

So the more likely path in the weeks ahead is the less obvious one, one that leaves Nawaz the most powerful PM since his heavy-mandate self of 1997.

It’s not hard to see why that’s the less obvious, more likely path ahead.

Start with Imran’s latest gamble, the Islamabad lockdown. You can see what he’s going for: made-for-TV road and public office closures; clashes with the police; and spiralling pressure on the government.

But you can already sense Imran is struggling.

To begin with, the PTI isn’t founded in street protests and militant cadres. Shutting down cities is against the ethos of the party and there is unease in large, important sections of the party.

That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, though, and you can drag your party against its will if you have something else on your side: TV.

On TV, minor clashes can be blown up to seem like a major incident; sparse crowds can be manipulated to seem much bigger; thundering statements can be projected as a real crisis. On TV, minor success can transform into systemic threat.

But much as the heavily politicised and commercialised realm of TV would love a street fight and a clash of political heavyweights, the lockdown poses a problem: TV can’t be seen supporting a fight between politicians at the cost of the people.

So for every politician holding forth on corruption on TV, you’ll see several ordinary citizens unable to get to work. And for every protester you’ll see, you’ll also have several irate parents, patients and commuters lining up to scold the PTI.

TV can do many things, but it can’t side with the political elite against the everyday people. So TV won’t be able to amplify the PTI lockdown.

The combination of a divided PTI and a TV whose amplification effect will be muted means the N-League should be able to see off the protests relatively unscathed — if it can hold its nerve.

As ever, the biggest danger to the N-League may be the N-League itself.

On to the transition and the rage of the boys. Seventeen days of tumultuous civ-mil relations and it’s relatively easy to explain two things: why such sustained, intense anger and why Nawaz isn’t necessarily imperilled by it.

The anger is straightforward enough: a chief on his way out, the most popular in a generation, has been politically blindsided in his last days, a triumphant exit potentially derailed.

But the imminent transition complicates and mitigates what can be wrought in revenge — even righteous revenge.

Right now, there’re at least four chaps in the succession race — a race that can only be won with the explicit nod of Nawaz himself. Much as they may feel bad for the incumbent, the ultimate prize is up for grabs and inches away.

You can bet, then, that the advice is: Sir, why don’t you let us handle this.

Translation: it’s a terrible thing that’s happened to you, but your time is up; now please don’t unduly complicate it for us.

If the implicit doesn’t see Nawaz through, he can also just announce the successor, selecting someone who has the respect of the boys, whose choice is perfectly in line with succession norms and who is apolitical, or as apolitical as they come.

The obvious choices have been bandied about for weeks.

So the more likely path in the weeks ahead is the less obvious one, one that leaves Nawaz the most powerful PM since his heavy-mandate self of 1997.

And that’s why we have to consider the more obvious, less likely path through November: Nawaz being cut down to size.

A 17-day crisis is not normal. And that despite the emphatic, obvious intransigence of the N-League that no one will be cut loose, no heads will be allowed to roll.

But what if Nawaz is forced to cut someone loose, à la Memogate?

There Zardari had been the target, but a compromise was reached in knocking out Haqqani — a compromise made possible by the fierce obsession the boys have with Haqqani and his relatively cool relationship with Zardari.

Here, there is no obvious character who meets the dual criteria of someone the boys would really like to see knocked out and who also has a cool relationship with Nawaz.

Hence the impasse.

Knocking someone out — or allowing the crisis to stretch out for a genuinely politically damaging period — may be in the interest of the current chief and the successor gaggle.

For the current chap, you can see why: it’ll be validation of having played a straight hand throughout.

For the successor gaggle, a triumphant Nawaz is not someone they can want to be faced with immediately, especially a Nawaz on a high having seen off the latest threat from his principal political rival in Punjab.

So let the crisis linger — it will necessarily hurt Nawaz. And if someone does get knocked out, all the better for the successor — he’ll assume control with it having freshly been made clear who the boss is.

Pakistan may be in a peculiar/familiar place again: because the more likely path forward is unpalatable, the less likely, more palatable path may be taken instead.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2016