Status quo

Published January 22, 2017
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

BUT is it moving the needle? This business of daily hearings has got the PTI in a frenzy.

Every day, a new revelation. Or to hear the PTI tell it, every day a smoking gun.

But the PML-N refuses to become a corpse.

####Politically, Nawaz didn’t need to prove he is clean; Nawaz just had to prove that he isn’t Asif Zardari-level dirty.

If anything, the party seems to be hitting its stride again. Nawaz confidently gabbing away with foreign leaders. The N-League’s media team aggressively swatting away the PTI’s attacks. And everywhere, a party laying down a — winning — story for 2018.

It’s like they’re inhabiting different worlds. What the heck is going?

Part of it is regular politics. Parties create realities to suit their politics. And in Pakistan’s case, there are two Pakistans:

The newer, more urban one that votes on issues — stuff like corruption and governance — and the old­er, traditional one that votes based on what the local MP, and the state on top of him, can do for the voter.

It makes sense for the PTI to be energised.

The court hearings are helping it protect its base. Both because of the information trickling out and the daily platform the PTI has, the PTI is probably recovering the ground it lost with the abortive Islamabad lockdown.

Back then, an unease was palpable within the PTI’s ranks. While everyone in the party is happy with an anti-status quo, anti-corruption platform, some are squeamish about guerrilla politics.

You can see why: anti-corruption and anti-status quo is about improving the system; street power harkens to a darker past and implies becoming as ugly as the ugliness you’re fighting.

The very backdrop of the Supreme Court, though, implies a righteous fight. Win or lose, the PTI is fighting the right way and on the right issue — corruption. That’s something everyone in the PTI voter coalition can get behind.

For the party itself, it’s a win-win. Win in court and Nawaz is knocked out. Lose in court and you’ve al­­rea­dy forced a string of damaging admissions by the Sharifs. Plus, lose in court and you can blame a rig­ged system fighting to protect the status quo. Not too shabby a year and a change ahead of an election.

But you can sense that the PML-N has also figured out that the PTI is trapping itself inside its own politics once again.

And that the needle may not be moving all that much from 2013. That in recovering lost ground, the PTI is corralling itself once again in a second-best voter coalition.

See what the N-League has succeeded in doing so far. It has suffered cuts and lacerations in the court, sure, but it has also contained the damage.

In effect, by arguing a narrow, legalistic defence, the N-League has muddied the simplicity of the PTI allegation.

Nawaz is corrupt; the kids are corrupt; the whole Sharif empire reeks of corruption is simple and intuitive politics. They probably are.

But the law has a way of making the simple and the intuitive complicated. And a court, the supreme one no less, is very different to a commission: a court can’t allow too much of a drift from narrow, legal arguments.

Politically, the N-League has lost the PTI core with its court performance. The awkward, contorted defence has solidified the PTI belief that the Sharifs are financially dodgy.

But look at what the N-League has achieved. It has given its own base — the PML-N base — the tools to mount a political defence.

Our leader went to the highest court in the land, he faced all his accusers, he faced unprecedented scrutiny — and nothing was proven.

Even a slap on the wrist from the court won’t matter from here — politically, Nawaz didn’t need to prove he is clean; Nawaz just had to prove that he isn’t Asif Zardari-level dirty.

With that done — with a sense that while he may not be one hundred per cent in compliance with the law, the Sharif empire is not fundamentally dirty — the N-League has been freed from being on the defensive at the next election.

Barring a stunning return to Chaudhry-esque activism, the court’s ruling will be quickly forgotten. What will be remembered is that Nawaz went to court and emerged with his job intact.

(Quick, why exactly was Yousuf Raza Gilani ejected? Can’t remember? That’s what history does to judgements.)

And that brings us to the real win.

Politically, the PTI core bounding back to the PTI is not terribly damaging to the N-League — no reasonable electoral strategy can be based on wresting that core away from the PTI.

The N-League shoring up its base is not a tremendous win either — better to have an easy time with your base, but elections are rough business and they’re always a slog.

The real win is the PTI trapping itself in a single-point agenda once again — anti-corruption.

It’s not enough. It wasn’t enough in 2013 and it won’t be enough in 2018. The swing voter needs something more.

And with all of its talk of delivering on electricity and building infrastructure, and striving for continuity and stability, the N-League has that something more that the PTI doesn’t.

It has that something more for both the old voter bloc (electricity, infrastructure) and the new voter bloc (stability and continuity bring results; and look, Nawaz offered himself up for more scrutiny than anyone else in the country’s history!)

The more PTI screams corruption and only corruption and the less it’s proven in the highest forum, the more the party will struggle to win swing voters in 2018.

You’d rather be Nawaz than Imran right now — again. The needle doesn’t seem to be moving much.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2017



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