Act two, scene one

Updated 20 Nov 2019


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

NAWAZ Sharif has finally flown out but it’s not curtains yet. It’s now the beginning of Act 2 of the ongoing political saga. The ailing former prime minister is not likely to return soon to resume his prison sentence and his departure has not lowered the political temperature.

While the court order removing the travel obstacles gave the government some respite, Sharif’s exit has provided PTI supporters with enough material to keep their guns blazing. Imran Khan’s increasingly aggressive tenor clearly denotes that there has been no change in his combative stance despite the widening divisions in the ruling coalition. So Act 2 is likely to be more enthralling.

Sharif’s departure, following protracted legal and political battles, may have also given the PML-N some relief, but the political party’s trials and tribulations are far from over. There are other factors that have helped Sharif’s departure, even if rumours of a backroom deal are not true. With a number of its leaders behind bars, or facing NAB investigations, combined with Sharif’s deteriorating health condition, the PML-N has a serious leadership crisis on its hands.

Even though the former prime minister was in prison, his presence in the country had given the party something to rally around. The strong probability of his not returning, even on health grounds, is likely to affect his credibility. The immediate issue before the PML-N is how to maintain unity in its ranks in the face of a clampdown, and continue to fight back. It appears that Maryam Nawaz, who is out on bail, will be guiding the party, but her restrictions are obvious.

Publicly abusing opposition leaders and threatening to put everyone in jail will not end corruption.

There is no sign of the PTI government pulling back from the politics of vendetta. Sharif’s release on bail, and the court order allowing him to leave the country by removing the indemnity condition, seems to have hardened Imran Khan’s rhetoric against the opposition. His speech on Monday betrayed his anger and frustration, and brought out his authoritarian streak. He was visibly upset with the judiciary for what was perceived as ‘unfavourable’ rulings, and there was intensification of his container mould.

True to form, Imran Khan is not willing to see the ominous signs on the political horizon. The ongoing political crisis has exposed the fault lines in a fragile coalition. There was a sharp divide over whether to allow Sharif to fly out for medical treatment. For the first time since coming to power some 15 months ago, the ruling alliance faces the possibility of a split.

Not only did the allied parties come out publicly with their dissent, the divisions within the PTI were also noticeable. The most scathing criticism of the government’s approach in dealing with political issues came from the PML-Q leadership. Interestingly, while Imran Khan was on a warpath with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the Chaudhry brothers were hobnobbing with the JUI-F leader eulogising his ‘political acumen’. They also distanced the PML-Q from the government’s position on the Nawaz Sharif issue. The position of the MQM, another key ally, has not been very different.

Indeed, the JUI-F dharna ending with a whimper has been met with sighs of relief by the PTI government, but the problem has not gone away completely. The crafty Maulana Fazlur Rehman may have been forced to eat humble pie, but he is not going to give up easily. Even if it doesn’t achieve anything, the maulana’s so-called Plan B has its own nuisance value. In this situation, the split within doesn’t bode well for the fragile coalition.

Imran Khan’s unyielding fight on all fronts may cost his government, that is confronted with serious economic challenges, dearly. The cracks in the ranks could widen if the prime minister does not exercise prudence and show political acumen. Nothing could be more damaging for a government with a weak governance record than to open up too many fronts. The problem is that Imran Khan has become a prisoner of his own rhetoric.

In the midst of all this, the latest statement from ISPR emphasising that the civil and military leaderships are on the same page has raised eyebrows. A major question is, what was the need of such a statement at this point? Of course, there have been all kinds of conspiracy theories circulating around regarding a perceived conflict between the government and military leadership. Still, there is no rational reason for issuing a clarification.

There is no need to emphasise that all state institutions are supposed to work under an elected government. Such statements only add to the prevailing confusion and unnecessarily drag institutions into controversy. They also reinforce the widespread perception of the security establishment assuming a greater role in political matters. Irresponsible statements by some federal ministers, too, have contributed towards strengthening this view.

Nothing weakens the democratic political process more than a perpetual crisis of governance. Undoubtedly, there have been some signs of improvement in the country’s macroeconomic situation. But for sustainable improvement, there is a need for political stability. This doesn’t mean that the government should compromise on basic principles, but that the politics of confrontation is a sign of weakness and not strength.

The present political crisis is largely of the government’s own making. Publicly abusing opposition leaders and making speeches that threaten to put everyone in jail will not end corruption. Imran Khan’s arbitrary style of governance has weakened the institutional workings of the state. His threatening declarations have made the whole accountability process questionable.

Sharif’s flying out will have some impact on the current political dynamics, but is not likely to bring about any fundamental change. It is obvious that the PML-N leaders on the ground will tread a more cautious path and avoid any confrontation with the security institutions. The party’s decision not to participate in maulana’s dubious Plan B sends a clear message. The party has remained intact so far, but Nawaz Sharif’s being away from the scene of action is likely to force the senior leaders to democratise the party’s functioning. Meanwhile, the challenges for Imran Khan are no less in Act 2 of the political saga.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2019