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Number 16

Updated November 27, 2016


THE end is harder than the beginning. He’s gone, but it was a close call — closer than it may have seemed.

It was a long 10 months.

Back in Jan, we were told he would go. On time, back to the norm, no funny business. It looked like a done deal.

But Nawaz isn’t Zardari — he looks like he could win again. The five-year arc may not apply to him.

But then the N-League started to mutter and mumble. It sounded conspiratorial, the kind of stuff pols excel at.

He doesn’t want to go, they said. He hasn’t come out and said it yet, but it’s obvious what he wants. Us to give it and give it in a way that it looks like we begged and he grudgingly accepted.

Confusing matters was that some in the N-League did want to give it, to keep him on beyond his three years.

The usual suspects with the usual reasons: to ingratiate themselves or to try and pull a fast one — if he agreed to stay on beyond three years, the N-League would have to worry less about him trying the ultimate.

For months, it was hard to separate the noise.

But then the final stretch came and the wobble grew. He is so popular; the country is demanding his service and that’s not easy to ignore, allies claimed.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if previous decisions were revisited and fresh ones made in light of the new circumstances, others suggested.

Think of the country, all said.

It got to the point that real anxiety was felt. What if it went beyond discreet inquiries and oblique messengers?

What if he just came out and demanded it?

As the tension rose, so did the resolve: no extension would be offered. In this brave new world, everyone goes when his time is up. The rules would not be bent.

It helped that Nawaz had played it straight the last time round. In 2013, he waited until the last moment and then picked the chap who had made no attempt to lobby and evinced no ambition.

So this time Nawaz could pretend he was just following his own template: wait until the last minute to announce the next chap.

But an adjustment to the template had to be made. This time he let it be known that there will be a next guy, on time, on schedule and as planned.

An extension would not be offered.

The end may be harder than the beginning, but an end it was going to be. Now it’s on to the next guy to move and to figure out what lies ahead.

Easiest is to know that we will be here again in three years. It’s not the man, it’s the office — it does something to you.

What’s an easy no when theoretical becomes a squeamish maybe when the moment arrives. Faced with an actual exit, the temptation to hang on will always manifest itself.

But that’s for the end. We’ve got three years to get through first. And in at least one respect, they may have to be different.

From Kayani to Raheel, we’ve seen the new scheme: rule without ruling. It means keep the civilians pinned backed generally and pinioned to the mat occasionally.

It’s worked well and the list of contrivances and convulsions is long and notorious.

The template has been to hit the new guy early, then get him again around the midpoint and then let him worry about elections by years four and five.

It amounts to: quickly sweep away early political capital and the electoral glow of a win at the polls; remind the civilians who’s boss around the time they may start to think beyond just survival; and let the normal electoral distractions do their work towards the end.

But Nawaz isn’t Zardari — he looks like he could win again. The five-year arc may not apply to him.

So far and on schedule, Nawaz has had a rough year three. Battered over Panama, battered over Modi and a rough transition to the next chief — orchestrated or not, it’s come together nicely according to the template.

But even now, Nawaz looks like he’ll survive and go on to be the favourite for re-election and a historic fourth term.

Then there’s the business of the other side catching on — the civilians figuring out what the boys are willing to do and learning that delay and non-reaction can see them through.

So the next chief will have to tweak the template and it sure as heck will be interesting to see how he goes about it.

The options are several. The episodes could become more intense. The abortive dharna could become the real deal — brinkmanship taken to the next level.

Memogate and the like could be escalated into yet more significant accusations of national security violations and harm to the national interest.

More significant political scalps could be demanded. And — the nuclear option: getting back into the game of massaging election results.

Nawaz, after all, remains uniquely vulnerable: he can win again all right, but he’ll have to sweep central and north Punjab — lands that are stalked by enemies aplenty.

All that we can know is that it won’t be pretty and it can’t nearly be predicted.

But that’s for the future. For now, welcome to No 16.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2016