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Losing while winning

Updated April 29, 2017


BLAME Panama. A delayed verdict disrupted our crisis cycle. Instead of a regular dose of crisis, we got a lengthy wait.

Nothing, nothing, nothing and then — kaboom.

It’s been quite a week. Multiple crises, many players, but one man at the centre of it all: Nawaz.

It’s been quite a week. Multiple crises, many players, but one man at the centre of it all: Nawaz.

He’s learning that victory can be sour and the rest of us are learning that a political winner can be a policy loser.

First, the politics.

All three of them were in campaign mode this week: Zardari, Imran and Nawaz, the three who hold the keys to the next parliament, trialling campaign messages for the masses in the election next year.

(Demand as Zardari and Imran did for Nawaz to exit, it was obvious neither of them really believes an early election is on the cards. Yesterday, Nawaz confirmed that.)

Zardari’s strategy is the easiest to discern — and the weakest. Batter Nawaz in speeches and cut deals to assemble blocs of votes via the constituency-type candidate.

It won’t get him very far. The PPP will try to regain some seats in old stamping grounds in south Punjab and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but the party has an obvious, twin problem: Zardari and Sindh.

Five years can be a lifetime in politics, but it’s too short to make folk forget the horrors of government by Zardari.

And even if folk were willing to forget, they can’t because of Sindh. It’s a single word, single syllable to make most recoil: Sindh, sinned, never again.

And even if folk were willing to give the PPP another shot, there’s the permanent Karachi operation to scuttle the party’s national ambitions.

A few well-timed arrests and some middle-of-the-night messengers to favourably inclined candidates would stop any PPP momentum.

A year is too little for the PPP to try and escape its sideshow status.

On to Imran. Master of drawing attention to himself and his message, he was at it again this week. Ten billion or no billion, nonsensical or crazy like a fox, whatever the hell it was, it worked.

Folk were talking about Imran, folk were talking about bribery and corruption, and folk were wondering about the Sharifs again.

In a week in which the N-League could have further limited the damage from the Panama verdict, Imran produced another sensational claim that sucked all the political oxygen towards the PTI.

But the Friday speech revealed a problem: Imran is still one-dimensional.

Go, Nawaz, go; resignation and corruption — it does not add up to stellar political maths. Imran is launching an election campaign by demanding Nawaz resign — an implicit acknowledgment of PTI failure.

Nawaz isn’t going to resign and the PTI demand that he resign isn’t going to build any pressure on Nawaz to resign.

And that leaves potential voters reminded that Imran has spent an entire parliament demanding futilely that Nawaz resign.

For the PTI core, that’s an admirable sign of principles and consistency. For everyone outside, it’s a sign of a politician who doesn’t know how to get what he wants.

Elections are forward-looking; Imran is turning everyone’s gaze backwards.

It’s not a good start for the PTI.

And then there’s Nawaz. The shots aimed at Imran will delight the base, but the electoral strategy is conventional and time-tested: a combination of delivering reasonably on promises and patronage politics.

Electricity is critical, but the week also illuminated a political reality: the voter’s desire to get more electricity is greater than his desire to punish a government for not getting it to him sooner.

See how as the N-League frantically pumped more megawatts into the system, the political unrest disappeared.

Give him electricity in adequate and regular quantities before election day and the voter won’t punish you.

Patronage too has a different rhythm. The voter dependent on patronage isn’t stupid enough to think that it will flow to them consistently and throughout a government’s term.

There’s always a surge around election time and the trick, for a political party, is make sure it doesn’t drop to unacceptable levels during a government’s term.

Here, the N-League is facing a bit of a struggle: agriculture and small business in Punjab have been hurting.

But you’re only as vulnerable as your enemy makes you. The PTI’s single-issue politics doesn’t exactly do much to expose the N-League’s patronage trouble and the N-League has a year to pump patronage into the system.

So, there it is: PPP starting as an also-ran; PTI tearing out of the gates, but with suspect voter enthusiasm; and the N-League juggernaut having its fate in its own hands.

But for all the favourable political winds, the N-League is strangely engulfed in crisis.

Two mistakes captured the problem: the secret Indian meeting and trying to rid itself of an eight-month-old headache quietly over the weekend.

Both provoked an instant and fierce response and exposed a critical, though familiar, mistake by Nawaz and the N-League: they thought their job was done with the appointment.

Having navigated a tricky Raheel exit and installed a chief very different in style, the N-League seems to have switched off.

Instead of opening a dialogue with a chief yet to figure out what he wanted to do and what the institution he leads will let him do, the N-League let the new guys work on their own with their own — an intra-institutional learning curve guaranteed to produce suspicion of civilians.

Five months later, Nawaz is not just locked out of policy, but is again being reminded where his place is.

It ain’t pretty. Then again, it never is.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2017