THE crises took considerable time to build up and very little for the final countdown. After a ‘million’ marches spread over weeks and months, the dharna phase of the Azadi March lasted less than two weeks. Likewise, the curtain finally came down on the PML-N’s legal troubles, which had been building up and compounding for months on end — though it is perhaps the end of an act and not the play. For, the soap opera called politics in Pakistan is like an American television series, which should have ended after the second season but has been stretched out, ad infinitum.
And now that the drop scene is over, everyone is claiming victory. The Sharifs have been able to secure Nawaz Sharif’s right to travel without having to sign an indemnity bond while the PTI is arguing that the undertaking given to the court is far stronger than the bond the government was asking for. Even enthusiastic supporters of one or the other are weighing down on their side having emerged victorious.
But if only politics were so simple.
There is the unfortunate tendency of our political parties to expect deus ex machina to resolve intractable problems rather than opt for a negotiated compromise. (Dues ex machina was a plot device used in Greek plays to resolve seemingly hopeless situations; usually a god would appear out of nowhere to provide a solution.) In our politics, the courts have been given this role.
There is no room for a political settlement once the decision is taken elsewhere.
This is as true of the PML-N as it is of the PTI. Back in 2016, when the PTI was preparing for a second protest/dharna in the wake of the Panama scandal, the PML-N — without a mark on its back unlike 2014 — did its best to stop Khan with all the might of the state. Containers, arrests, tear gas at Banigala, nothing was spared; the restraint of 2014 was missing as was the threat of the government being sent home. Khan also proved stubborn as his workers camped out on his hilltop home. Neither side showed any flexibility.
The judiciary back then appeared to act like deus ex machina by accepting an earlier rejected petition to take suo motu notice of the Panama story. The rest is history.
This time around proved no different; the inability of the government and the PML-N to resolve the matter through negotiation left no option but for the court to provide a middle way.
It is noteworthy that each time — in 2016 and in 2019 — the verdict threw up no surprises. it was assumed/predicted that the verdict would end the impasse and it did.
However, this practice should end; and it will only do so once the political parties realise that letting go of the initiative (and the power to decide) is a sign of weakness and not strength. It simply reflects a lack of maturity as well as of decision-making power in political parties. For eventually, the initiative (and power) rests with the forces willing to take the decision, even if means compromising for the moment. As the PML-N learnt to its loss, there is no room for a political settlement once the decision is taken elsewhere; the courts eventually ended up disqualifying Nawaz Sharif. The PTI later paid a similar price.
Moving on, however much the verdict is being interpreted as a win-win situation, both parties will suffer adverse effects.
Initially, when the former premier was given bail, it seemed he would be flying out of the country within days. Naeem ul Haq’s and Ijaz Shah’s statements indicated this. But the reaction of the ‘young Turks’, led to a change of heart; the indemnity bond was conjured up in the hope to pass the buck.
But despite this, the PTI will be reminded time and again of its posturing on accountability and its track record on high-profile prisoners — because there are chances that Nawaz Sharif is not going to be the only one being set free in the coming days.
The PTI better brace itself for a long, hard ride — as should the PML-N.
Nawaz Sharif’s illness may have precipitated his travel but the party will not find it easy to deflect talk of a deal; the maulana’s march; the lacklustre PML-N participation; Maryam Nawaz’s bail; the production orders of some PML-N leaders; the support from the PML-Q as well as the chairman Senate will lead many to speculate about a backroom deal.
This perception will be strengthened if Maryam Nawaz, at some stage, applies for and is allowed to join her father; this possibility was being discussed when he was first released on bail though it has died down since.
Already, there is talk of how Shahbaz Sharif’s narrative has once again prevailed over his elder brother and niece. The latter two’s silence, which is being attributed to Nawaz Sharif’s illness, is adding to this perception. It is notable that Maryam Nawaz was missing when Shahbaz Sharif held a press conference on Thursday where he spoke of his brother’s health and the government’s behaviour. Earlier, she used to lead the press conferences on her father’s health.
But as the PML-N deals with its first family’s legal and personal battles, the spotlight will return to Khan in the meantime, who, according to observers, is in trouble once again, as he was earlier when he had changed his finance team. Clearly, since then he had gained some strength which he once again has been deprived of.
Another way of looking at the issue is that conflict within this relationship is inevitable and will keep cropping up again and again. But this friction, which will be ongoing, has not reached the point of a breakdown — in fact, some are predicting that the next point of conflict will be Punjab. Hence, it may be too soon to speak of Khan’s departure or his being replaced.
A fragile government, with a razor-thin majority in parliament needs a strongman to keep it in place; if not Khan, who else can it be? Expecting a second-tier PTI leader to do this, is nothing more than wishful thinking, for the moment.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2019