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The first signs

September 07, 2018

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IT is not clear whether or not we are allowed to speak about it before the expiry of the three-month deadline that Prime Minister Imran Khan set at the post-victory huddle of the tabdeeli vanguard in Islamabad recently. Still, let us report that for those in search of a new Pakistan there is definitely a fresh feel about the proceedings here.

Some important members belonging to the PTI are talking of steps, the implementation of which could lead the country in a new direction. Not that these issues haven’t been raised before but, at least in the recent past, discussing some of these subjects has been considered quite dangerous and certain areas have been off limits to the government for a while now. Significantly, these concerns are being talked about by the PTI, which is identified as more of an inside group with internal pressure to convince the hardliners that these things needed to be done, and done with some urgency.

The three-month period is crucial to finding out whether the Imran Khan team, which by all impressions enjoys a good rapport with the powerful custodians of the country’s ideology, can hold on to the ground that it has sought to capture. In the forefront of its drive to begin its term on the front foot has been Fawad Chaudhry, a product of the Musharraf-Q League-PPP catchment area for the Imran Khan campaign. He landed in the PTI in time to secure the important information ministry portfolio.

Chaudhry is going to find the expedition tough given the note he has begun on, as opposed to his Punjab counterpart Fayyaz Chohan. As a typical Pakistan-style intra-party counterweight to Chaudhry, Chohan arrived in the Imran camp via the other significant talent spring that the PTI has drunk heavily from. This alternate pool flaunts material from right-wing parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and wields its own influence within.

Some of the PTI’s most ardent opponents would wish them well on carrying out the initiatives listed by Fawad Chaudhry.

This means that, like other political parties which have been in power before, a PTI which promises life-changing measures such as madressah reforms and a selection of maligned minority members in key national posts will not just be bothered by the prospects of outside change to its reformist thoughts. It has its own internal checks to be wary about. It will have to keep an eye on elements within its ranks who might just not forever be placated by what appears to be the current party policy that strives to accommodate all kinds of sentiments and all shades of thinking and a wide variety of passengers on Captain Imran Khan’s ship.

What clinches the argument here need not be stressed too much. The idea is that the leadership — not just Imran Khan’s but the overall combined command that the country is under the control of — in the evolving national situation will see to it that what has to be done will be done. The combined command must see to it that no one is allowed to hold the new setup hostage to its agenda.

There are sections of society that are a little overawed by this overbearing leadership. At the same time, they pray that some positives come out of the partnership. Some of the PTI’s most ardent opponents would wish them well on carrying out the initiatives that have been listed by Fawad Chaudhry. Since the benefits to accrue from this promised push are going to be shared by all those suppressed by long years of narrow social policing, everyone in the political arena, including the PTI’s allies and critics, could do with the space that a crackdown on the agents of asphyxiating conservatism will eventually create.

But obviously, the rather unexpected declarations by the PTI against extremism will be an altogether contrasting expectation in the area occupied by those who cannot quite help wishing that Imran Khan meets his nemesis soon.

The PPP has decided to play by the rules, and who knows it might be imagining some kind of resurgence in crucial parts of the country in the face of the much-anticipated collapse of the PML-N. The PPP fielded Aitzaz Ahsan for the presidency recently. Barrister sahib could be presented as someone who was not all that unsuited to the Imran setup, particularly in the light of certain statements by him which left some of the democrats gasping for oxygen.

The PPP could hardly bring itself to support Maulana Fazlur Rehman for the presidential slot. The maulana is too anti-system for Asif Zardari’s liking. He was reined in with a lot of difficulty after he dismissed the July 25 election results. That was an approach not — yet — favoured by a Zardari who is faced with serious court cases and who for the time being is quite insistent upon blaming his non-cooperation with Shahbaz Sharif’s PML-N on the N-League’s ‘undemocratic’ past. He is ready to reconcile as ever, with the establishment and the PTI. And his party is quick to correct the response after one of its more vocal members rapped Fawad Chaudhry for the ultimate sin of standing up to safeguard minority rights.

With the old suspect PPP choosing to play what so many caustically call ‘PTI facilitator’, the obvious protagonist for an anti-PTI onslaught based on faith-related matters would be the PML-N. There are some pro-PML-N voices which have already shown their disapproval for the ‘pro-minority’ tone of the PTI’s first signals in power. These overtures in rejection could have been much stronger had they come a little later in the PTI term — when everyone was surer and clearer about what policy to adopt in the post-Nawaz Sharif era.

Right now, the politicians are feeling around for direction. The PML-N itself would be a little tentative lest it went drastically and irredeemably against the grain and drifted irreversibly away from Shahbaz Sharif’s preferred formula. Shahbaz sahib looks anything but a natural in his role as opposition leader. Like Zardari and everyone else worth the leader tag, he would rather be in the mix as an alternative to the incumbent and not as an opponent to the system.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2018