Sometimes two plus two comes to five. Or three. This is perhaps why the arithmetic of power games is defying the logic of numerals. In the corridors of the capital, there is a sense of uncertainty, unease and discomfort.

There is also a whiff of conspiracy.

January has come laden with heaviness for the ruling PTI. The dots have started appearing in all their randomness. At some point they may start to connect. But not yet. For now, the eerie randomness of logic-defying occurrences has power-watchers scratching their heads in wonderment.

No wonder. US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells arrived on a whirlwind tour of Pakistan after spending a few days in India. She is an important official of the State Department, and on all matters South Asian, an influential voice in Washington. In her packed schedule, she met senior Pakistani officials, including Interior Minister retired Brig Ejaz Shah.

She also wanted to meet politicians from the opposition to get a sense of the political situation. Such meetings are not anything out of the ordinary. The US officials requested, on her behalf, meetings with two key opposition personalities: Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Maryam Nawaz Sharif.

Guess what — both politely regretted.

Now what is happening here? The decision by the two politicians to turn down such a meeting has caught many by surprise. When I checked with people from the two parties about this, they gave ‘official-type’ reasons about ‘prior commitments’ and ‘conflicting schedules’ but then that’s how two plus two comes to three.

Whispers abound. Perhaps Bilawal was advised that he should be meeting someone more senior. Perhaps Maryam was advised it would look like her family was ‘complaining’ to the Americans about their problems. Perhaps both the PPP and PML-N sensed the optics of meeting a senior US official at a time when they have some quiet backchannel going on with the establishment might be inopportune.

Whatever the case, the fact is that domestic political considerations played an important role in convincing the two opposition politicians to turn down what is usually a sought-after meeting.

Such considerations are gradually permeating through rigid walls of defiance and carving out space — howsoever miniscule — for fresh political options. In fact, it is in this gradually expanding space that incarcerated opposition personnel are rediscovering the joys of freedom via bails.

Fawad Hassan Fawad, the principal secretary to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was granted bail on Tuesday after spending 18 months behind bars. Before him former finance minister Miftah Ismail was granted bail after the court threw out NAB’s flimsy charges against him. Rana Sanaullah got bail in the case that defies rational thought and before him Mr Sharif was allowed to leave for London and during this time Asif Zardari was also granted bail. Hamza Shahbaz may get bail soon.

All convenient coincidences? All random occurrences? For answers, look to Punjab. That’s where the wind is blowing in a direction that should concern the leadership of PTI. The origins of what is unfolding in the country’s largest province have something to do with what was decided in London a few weeks back.

The decision by the PML-N leaders to support the extension in the tenure of Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa was a shock to most people, including the party’s rank and file. Party insiders now say that the decision was well-thought out in terms of political strategy.

However, the intensity of the adverse reaction, they admit, did take the leadership by surprise. They knew people would react negatively, but so vehemently?

And yet, there is a twist. In the aftermath of the outcry and allegations of a “sell-out”, the PML-N leadership undertook a quiet survey of their parliamentary party. They wanted to know what their parliamentarians really thought of this decision. Members were asked their opinions individually so no one was compelled to take a public position. And what was the result?

A party leader told me an overwhelming majority supported the decision. They heaved a sigh of relief that they would not have to fight the establishment anymore. This was, according to him, the silent majority that had no choice but to go along with the combative narrative that the party had adopted for the last few years.

The PML-N voters — fed a diet of defiance — are naturally shell-shocked and depressed, but party leaders calculate this disenchantment is temporary while the gains will be more long-lasting.

But what gains? That’s the question everyone is asking in the capital. The answer may lie less in a list and more in a gradually unfolding process. For the PTI, however, such signals are hard to miss. Trouble may take one form or the other, but trouble is brewing and the epicentre seems to be shallow ground in Lahore.

Inconsequential irritants are piling up into big problems and these problems may become crises because the top leadership of the party is failing to solve problems and address grievances. A trust deficit with allies and their chief supporters can be a dangerous thing at this time when nothing seems to be going right for the government.

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2020


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