WHILE round whatever-this-is-supposed-to-be plays out and the ducks are lined up or not and would-be saviours make an unsavoury mess of things and everything gets gummed up or not and we’re all left chasing shadows and our tails, a moment, please, to reflect on what they get right, what they get wrong and why they do both.

First, the bit they’ve got right: Imran is PM, Nawaz is not and Zardari is kinda trapped in Sindh.

Explore: What next for Nawaz Sharif?

Assuming that was the plan, 2018 can be chalked up as a success. Sure, it’s been messy, but then what isn’t here? Plus, it was a hella project: knocking out the biggest political player in the land; perpetrating a generational political shift; and stealing an election No wait, the election wasn’t stolen, the results were massaged. Or maybe not massaged all that much; Imran has genuine popular support. Or actually it was a legitimate victory, the voter ready to move on. Oh, who cares, Imran is the PM, get over it already.

Elections 2018: Mapping the trends

Democracy 2018: forget the quality or the substance, just be grateful you’ve got some semblance of it.

And because of all of that, a success — from their perspective. Made all the sweeter by all the howling that the year is closing out on. Oh, how they’re howling.

Democracy 2018: forget the quality or the substance, just be grateful you’ve got some semblance of it.

Nawaz back in jail or the threat of jail hanging over him; a classic web of investigations and cases and inquiries ensnaring Zardari — the same ol’, same ol’ still yielding delicious new results. The PPP and PML-N are agog and infuriated, but what are they going to do? The system has Imran’s back.

So that’s one thing they’ve got right. But they’ve also got a couple of things wrong.

A funny little trope that has taken hold in the TV-dominated discourse is that Nawaz and Zardari can be pushed out because they may be ready to leave and they may be ready to leave because they have an obvious succession path now.

Asif has Bilawal and Aseefa, Nawaz has Maryam — why would these two old men stick around for all the trouble and humiliation that seeking power brings when they can hand over their kingdoms to their flesh and blood and live an easy life with their accumulated billions.

But the idea that Zardari and Nawaz are ready for retirement — and if they don’t know that they are ready, that they can be made to understand that they are ready — is to misunderstand politicians, politics and, well, the two old men.

Sure, it helps that Zardari has Bilawal and a spare heir in Aseefa. And Nawaz’s acceptance that his sons are no match for his daughter has put to rest silly notions that the party was going to be inherited by the other branch of the family.

But Zardari and Nawaz aren’t in politics first and foremost for their children; Zardari and Nawaz are in politics first and foremost for themselves — a world of difference when the aim is to ram them out of politics.

You can even see it in the children. Much of the talk among PPP types that Asif should hand over the party to Bilawal so that the party can make a fresh start has died down — because most PPP types have figured out that there isn’t much light between the politics of Asif and the politics of Bilawal.

With Nawaz, they’re tried to portray him as misled by an ambitious but naïve daughter. Because it helps to have Nawaz look stupid and weak — an old fool still not able to figure out what’s good for him and his family.

But there’s little actual evidence of Nawaz being radicalised by Maryam and a great deal of evidence in the opposite direction: that Maryam’s politics are wholly her father’s politics and it is he who has taught her all — the good, bad and ugly — that he’s learned from a lifetime in politics.

Nawaz and Zardari head into 2019 with legitimate succession options, more legitimate than at any time before, but the fanatical focus on those options has obscured that neither man has shown any inclination whatsoever to walk away from politics.

And that could make 2019 and beyond dangerously messy — messier than what 2018 and the run-up to it brought.

They — they-who-shall-(temporarily)-not-be-named — get it wrong because they think as professionals and everyone retires from a profession. And also there’s not insignificant resentment.

The generals and judges consider themselves to hold a higher station than politicians because they believe they are a) professionally trained and b) they go home at some point.

Gen Jilani may have created Nawaz, but Jilani is just a footnote in history. What the hell is Nawaz doing picking half a dozen army chiefs, surviving a dozen chief justices and thinking he can stick around for several more? Same goes for that odious Zardari — who do these guys think they are?

The comparison to themselves and the resentment it creates is a part — maybe even the key part — of the system’s need to periodically purge itself of politicians. When Zardari taunts them for their three-year stints, what they hear is the justification for why they need to do whatever it takes to rid the system of Zardari and his ilk.

Twenty eighteen was a good year for them.

But the need and desire to continue with the purge and the foolish idea that Nawaz and Zardari can be cajoled to exit could make 2019 messy and unstable.

Here we go again.

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2018


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