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Collision course

Updated August 06, 2017

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THE problem is apparent. They wanted him out because he, like Zardari, is a stain on democracy. Never mind what the public says, there’s a higher principle of state at stake.

Zardari proved harder to get because he cloaked himself in the immunity of the presidency and the cult of Bhutto meant there were acolytes willing to take a political bullet for him.

Nawaz they have managed to get because he wanted power and the office too. The office drew him out into the open, vulnerable to attack both political and institutional. The stain could be removed.

And just like that, Nawaz has an unabashed acolyte as PM and a brother who’s still stuck in Lahore. All for the good of the party, of course.

But the stain — Nawaz — isn’t going away. He’s out of office, but wants political validation. This caravan to Lahore isn’t about driving off into the sunset. It’s about topping-up on political capital.

By itself, that would be fine. Run around, seek sympathy from the base, address a rally or two — the system can absorb it and will tolerate it. Nothing like seeing the mightiest reduced to whining and complaining.

But there’s more to it.

Only a fool would believe the official line the PML-N is peddling for why Shahbaz is sticking around in Lahore and Khaqan will carry on till parliament’s end. Only the naïve listen to the words.

Trace instead the power. In the immediate aftermath, Khaqan as placeholder and Shahbaz as anointed heir achieved two vital things. A 45-day PM helped stave off the anger of those who had missed out.

The hunger to be PM is as real as the opportunity to become one is rare. Most would do unspeakable things just to be prime minister for a day. Nisar was the only one disconsolate enough to go public, but you can bet that the hurt of missing out was felt by many.

The only thing that would have eased the contenders’ pain was the thought of Khaqan being around just until Shahbaz arrived in Islamabad. A Sharif for a Sharif is an arrangement no non-Sharif can object to.

The lightning-quick manoeuvre — the announcement of a two-stage immediate succession plan — also had another effect. It tricked the Shahbaz camp into celebrating its luck and its imminent arrival in Islamabad.

There’s no time for conspiracies when it’s time to get the sherwanis sewed.

The Khaqan-followed-by-Shahbaz formula held everything together in a moment of real peril for Nawaz. It threaded the needle that may have been unthreadable. And it did that by suggesting a magnanimity by Nawaz.

And then, just as quickly, everything changed.

Um, maybe it’s better if Khaqan sticks around a bit longer. It doesn’t look nice to chop and change. And Shahbaz is doing such a great job in Punjab. We shouldn’t act in haste.

And who will handle Punjab? There’s an election round the corner to think about. Continuity is important. Think about the party.

And just like that, Nawaz has an unabashed acolyte as PM and a brother who’s still stuck in Lahore. All for the good of the party, of course.

Two other, surely unintentional, benefits may also flow to Nawaz from the ruse.

He may be freed of the prime minister’s office, but the office is also freed of him. With Nawaz out, the inertia and dullness he brought to the prime ministership can be adjusted.

Already water and power and the petroleum ministry’s have been revamped by Khaqan — a desperately obvious change that Nawaz had inexplicably refused to authorise.

So while there are only months left of this government, its final stretch could also be its most effective. And it’s not just the PM’s office. The ouster has also produced the cabinet shake-up that Nawaz had stalled.

Remember all those years ago when Nawaz had flirted with the idea of ministerial performance audits? Instead we got four years of the stodgiest, dull cabinet imaginable.

That may now change. Nothing too dramatic, of course — the size of the new cabinet indicates its priorities — but maybe enough to sustain energy over the final stretch.

Put all of that together.

Nawaz, freed from office, topping up his political capital in Punjab. A fiercely loyal ally as PM till term end. A brother and his branch of the family stuck in Lahore. A PM office with new drive and a cabinet overhauled.

Early, very early, days yet. But from disaster are already emerging the contours of the next phase of Nawaz control.

Good for him, but maybe not so good for the rest of us.

Ousting him was not easy. But the narrowness of the grounds on which he was ousted is an indication of the fierce desire to see the back of him.

And where the attack came from indicates a double institutional disdain: one side for corruption, the other for his affection for India.

They came all this way, shook up the system, only to see Nawaz quickly find a way to stay in control? And this time from a more protected position, the best one of all, not having any office he can be chucked out of?

That’s the problem: it doesn’t look sustainable.

In taking the Zardari route, Nawaz is doing the smart thing for himself. But the Zardari route has also worked because he could be beaten back to Sindh and kept there.

Nawaz? He can’t be beaten back to Punjab and kept there because Punjab is the key to Islamabad. It just can’t work.

Nawaz staying a winner in a system that wants him out may only mean one thing long term: this democracy business won’t last.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2017