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Seven for seventeen

Updated January 01, 2017


IT’S set up to be the year of Nawaz. Enemies vanquished, rivals sidelined; a clear path to 2018 and beyond.

What could go wrong?

Plenty. And in this age of consensus, let’s spin a different tale. In ascending order, seven things that could go wrong for Nawaz in ’17.

First, oil prices. The consumption boom in Pakistan has been soaked in low fuel costs. If costs start to go up, the electoral strategy may be in trouble.

With electricity, who wants it if you can’t afford it?

Then there’s the slyness of pretending electricity is fixed by diverting it to urban and high-billing areas.

The more you stress normalisation in an environment where no one else wants it, the more out of touch you seem.

It may work with the media, mostly urban-based and urbanish-focused, but it may not work with votes — if at best all you can do is manage the decade-old power outages, maybe someone else should get a shot?

Twenty-thirteen was a referendum on electricity, few dispute that. But there’s a double problem in 2018: what if you don’t fix electricity; and what if you fix it, but can’t control the costs?

Second, corruption. Oh, they deny it all right. But the enemies are shrieking.

And the stories are mounting.

And the vulnerabilities are increasing. Where the PPP was smash-and-grab, the N-League is savvy and discreet.

But eight years in Punjab and three at the centre start accumulating. The schemes are fanciful, some heard of, mostly not — until someone blows the lid off.

The big power plants they’re building — ever wonder who owns the land they’re built on and the rates they get? Everyone’s heard of the bus lanes and road construction, but ask yourself this: when was the last time you heard of the N-League touting 3- and 4G? Every other last damn thing they flog, even if it isn’t theirs to brag about.

But fast data connections on mobile phones in an era where the future daughter-PM leverages every possible social media advantage? Never heard of it. Why?

Corruption has a funny way of striking where few anticipate. Pakistan is ripe for an epic scandal.

Third, Punjab. We know the problem, but what’s the solution? The boys want to go in to clean up the sectarian mess and the anti-Pakistan stuff.

But Nawaz can’t let them. And that’s the problem no one has a solution to.

The N-League can’t let go of the police in the year before an election. And they can’t have troops stomping around Punjab doing counterterrorism stuff.

So, what the hell happens?

In truth, no one knows. In truth, few would bet against the boys prevailing.

All of that translates into potentially big trouble.

Fourth, Panama. It isn’t going away. And while it doesn’t touch Nawaz directly, the heiress is tainted by it. But there’s another problem now.

With a new CJ taking over, one with a reasonably long term ahead, the court has to say something.

Maybe nothing the court sees and hears permits it to strike directly at Nawaz or Maryam. But only a reckless lot would let the Sharifs off without even a hint of censure.

The case is now too toxic, and the facts malleable enough to allow for some denunciation.

You can bet the N-League won’t handle it gracefully.

Fifth, India. We know what Nawaz wants: a normalisation process. We know what India wants: anti-India militancy addressed. What we don’t know: how to square the difference.

Eventually, something has to give. In Pakistan, in 2016, the anti-India lot tasted blood. By itself, that’s manageable. But then another thing happened: public opinion shifted.

The rise of anti-India sentiment here frees up space for action there. Where once a public, mainstream, political consensus was for normalisation, now there is widespread second-guessing about India’s true intentions.

The bar has been lowered and more funny business has become possible.

On the other side, there’s the lunacy of an adequate response. If something happens, proven or not, retaliation is necessary. India may do something stupid.

The problem here is less that the boys won’t respond than Nawaz not having a clue. We get it, normalisation is important.

But the more you stress normalisation in an environment where no one else wants it, the more out of touch you seem.

Clueless dolt isn’t a good place for a PM to be.

Sixth, militancy. The flip side of the boys’ need to act in Punjab is the bad guys’ ability to survive and thrive. Eventually, survival and thrival turns to action. APS was two years ago, Lahore and Quetta saw big ones last year. The time may be up for Karachi or Islamabad or somewhere else catastrophic.

Terrible as it may be, for Nawaz Punjab is all that matters politically. If Lahore, Pindi or some of the smaller cities are hit and hit in a devastating way, Nawaz may have questions to answer.

Seven, civ-mil. It is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. And it rests on a difference in worldviews.

Nawaz wants back in the national security and foreign policy game because his is a vision of trade and regional integration.

The boys, well, they have a vision too: stay strong, stay militarised and do whatever it takes to defeat regional threats.

But if predicting civ-mil strife is the daal-chawal of politics here, there may be a twist this year: if Bajwa and Mukhtar align themselves with the Nawaz worldview, an almighty internal struggle could erupt.

Less civ v mil and more mil on mil? Happy New Year.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn January 1st, 2017