THERE’S a new ‘sheriff’ in town. As the PTI flexes its muscles and aims to dominate Constitution Avenue, its critics wonder what a government run by somebody known for his U-turns would be like. But before Imran Khan could provide any grist for the media mills, the opposition to his party dominated headlines and the news, as he had once done. Indeed, this was an opposition that kicked into action long before the PTI had finished counting its seats.
It all began with the PML-N ‘rejecting’ the election on election day itself without explaining what the rejection meant. (This from a party that once got miffed when an official rejected a notification.) Two days later, an all-parties conference called by the MMA honcho repeated the rejection mantra.
It was a grim sight, the picture of all party heads, grey-haired, bespectacled and bearded, with not a smile among the entire lot squeezed together. It could have been a formidable sight too for the PTI which has no experience of running a government in Islamabad. But it was not. For the parties collected together by Maulana Fazlur Rehman didn’t include either the PPP or the MQM. Thanks to these two RSVPs in the negative, the united opposition didn’t appear all that united.
Unity with a dash of disunity has been the hallmark of the opposition.
This is not all. The conference forced Shahbaz Sharif to finally come clean on his bluster as he told the maulana (and the others) that he would get back after consulting the rest of his party on boycotting parliament. In doing so, he shattered the dreams of the maulana, who was reportedly dreaming of a PML-N-MMA dharna, which with the help of madressah students and the PML-N’s Punjabi voters, would have inconvenienced Khan as much as he once disrupted the Noonies.
And by the time Sharif junior had a powwow with the PPP lot, the boycott was a lost cause. Around the same time, the Jamaat-i-Islami also ditched the maulana and announced joining parliament.
This unity with a dash of disunity has been the hallmark of the opposition which has been as active as Banigala’s PTI wallahs who are busy collecting the very independents and MQM leaders their leader had spoken of contemptuously.
While the opposition continues to meet (under the title of GOA — the Grand Opposition Alliance), bets are already being placed in Islamabad on when the PPP will pull out. The party has been the second biggest beneficiary of election 2018 (with its two-thirds haul in the Sindh Assembly) and seems a bit out of place standing next to the PML-N and the Pakhtun leadership of ANP, PkMAP, MMA and QWP.
The co-chair is said to be looking for a bargain he likes and once he finds one, the GOA might be a member short. There is far too much speculation on what the bargain might be, but no one denies its being sought. Is this why Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Asif Ali Zardari have not been sighted at a single meeting of the opposition, despite rumours that the former would host the second multiparty conference?
In fact, the media talk after a recent opposition meeting was only addressed by Ahsan Iqbal and Mushahid Hussain on the PML-N side and Sherry Rehman from the PPP. The other senior lot wasn’t even there for the photo op.
So, if (or should one say when) the PPP pulls out, what will become of the PML-N and the maulana’s ability to paralyse parliament? Shahbaz Sharif and Fazlur Rehman would rather not answer this.
Disunity is afflicting not just the opposition but also the party waiting in the wings. Banigala is not just the place to which the independents and small parties are flocking. It’s also the place where stories about infighting have overtaken news about the numbers and the governments being finalised.
The house on the hill has more aspiring chief ministers than there are senior journalists and analysts on television these days. While Imran Khan or his Man Friday, Jehangir Tareen, have yet to name names, everyone else seems to know who the lucky one is. Pervez Khattak quietly tried to leak ‘news’ of his indispensability to the provincial setup while Fawad Chaudhry giggled and said who wouldn’t be interested when asked about his chances for replacing Sharif with the Panama hat. It is assumed that both got a rap on the knuckles, for Chaudhry no longer giggles when asked this question and Khattak has blamed the media for spreading silly stories.
A certain senior grey-haired stalwart from the south has also gotten an earful for thinking his interests were bigger than the party’s. The media has suddenly become less of a friend when Aleem Khan felt the need to hold forth on how the big, bad media was making a mountain out of a molehill. Soon, the PML-N will suddenly discover the power of journalism and the PTI will be worrying about the adverse effects of 24/7 channels and their angry anchors.
But before that, the decision about Punjab — above everything else — will tell us who won the skirmish between the two south Punjab heavyweights in the PTI. The Jehangir Tareen-Shah Mehmood Qureshi cold war is the stuff of legends now, with stories of how they propped up proxies to cost the rival camp seats. But at the moment, the businessman is higher up the pecking order. The troubleshooter didn’t just fly around the country but was also present at most of the media talks where new party entrants were displayed in front of ogling cameras.
But party discipline has always been difficult for the PTI, though power will paper over the cracks to an extent. Already, there are rumblings of discontent at outsiders being considered for key posts and how votes for posts other than the prime minister may not be easy to clinch.
Indeed, the incoming government is far from clear about who will fill which coveted spot (except perhaps Asad Umar, the finance minister-to-be). The nation should be ready for a roller-coaster ride in this mad, bad world of politics. But however chaotic it gets, let’s never forget that the uncertainty of a crazy political world is far better than the organised certainty of a dictatorship.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2018