IT is ominous when the perception of reality starts to change the reality of perception. January has done just this to an electorate swaying between extremes.
Till last month, this government floated on the buoyancy of being untouchable. It could do all wrong and yet do no wrong. The Teflon prime minister sashayed across all challenges with grim determination that did not entail looking over his shoulder. His lieutenants took a wrecking ball to governance and yet peacocked around this land with smugness plastered on their faces. It was weirdly surreal to gaze upon this state of affairs dressed up as the new normal in a country which didn’t have an old normal to start with.
Something had to give. Either the PTI government would shrug off all these shenanigans as part of its growing pains and join adulthood, or well … something had to give. And so something did give.
But what? There are no tangibles here — for now at least. There is no radical change in peoples and places and performances; there is no alteration in behaviours and attitudes and demeanours; there is in fact no modification, minor or major, in claims, vows and promises that are hurled down from various ramparts by various PTI officials at various times on various occasions on a daily basis. This Titanic — it seems — is chugging along fine.
Or is it?
Enter the PML-N. Still smarting from the savaging it received post-Panama, the party decided to do what wizened parties do: wait out the storm and survive. Whipped, clubbed and clobbered right royally, the party of the Sharifs found an opening when everything seemed dark and depressing. It was an opening no one had seen coming and yet when it presented itself, it took all the political strength and foresight that the Sharifs had gathered over three decades to leverage it to the hilt.
Punjab is a wound that is bleeding and bleeding with no bandage in sight.
The party leadership’s support for the extension came as shock to most of its rank and file. The reaction was vicious and scathing. Some bemoaned the meek ‘surrender’ while others shed tears over the death of ‘resistance’. This was, as someone said, the end of democracy’s pushback against the growing role of the establishment. There was no one left to fight the good fight. All were truly on the same page now. But unbeknownst to most, there was a method to this seeming madness.
Here the story moves to London. In these cool climes and far from the madding crowd, two brothers had finally found time to engage in deep strategising. The difference this time was not the strategising — that they had been doing frequently back in Pakistan — but the intense focus that comes from undisturbed, undistracted, and protracted conversation and consultation that goes beyond daily firefighting matters. The brothers had not had an opportunity for such deep strategising away from prying eyes and ears and far away from everyone else for a very long time. There was so much ground to cover and so many things to reconcile. The last time the two brothers had such one-on-one time — unencumbered by ruling duties, political clashes, court cases, arrests, jail time and bails — was probably more than a decade ago when they were in exile.
And so, probably, they sat across one another and talked and talked and talked till a plan began to materialise.
The plan was a by-product of appreciating the realities of the system and then leveraging these realities for hard-nosed political goals. As these two men sat across each other, probably, they must have realised no one knew the system better than them. No one. It was time to get down from the high horse, roll up their sleeves and dive into the bare-knuckled political fist fight. In this fight, they got help from an unlikely quarter — the PTI.
The reality of the PTI’s Buzdar blunder in Punjab had started to tarnish the perception of the party as a whole. This perception in turn began to soil the reality of the PTI’s attempt at governance. The PML-N had nothing much to do with this. The PTI was doing own-goals on a weekly basis and in the process solidifying the reality of the perception that it was a party that could talk the talk but couldn’t walk it. By the time the two brothers started their strategising in London, the PTI’s perception of incompetence had already outstripped its ability to deliver governance in Punjab. And many men — powerful men — were getting impatient and annoyed. The plan had gone off-script.
This is when the extension opening presented itself. It could not have come at a better time for the brothers. By now, the competing intra-party narratives had gradually begun to merge into a realistic whole. There would be a time to fight the good fight, but first there was the matter of getting back into the game. Here was the gate that opened into the courtyard that passaged into the arena where the game was being played. Inexperienced and hot-headed politicians would have slammed the gate and walked off in a huff to give a heroic press conference. But these were rational leaders making a rational decision to follow a rational path through a rational strategy.
So they pushed the gate. Someone had already left it unlocked.
A seismic shift in political continental plates has now begun to happen without triggering an earthquake. Time waits for no one. The PTI does not seem to have its ear to the ground, or its hand on the steering wheel. The Buzdar blunder is birthing mini-blunders that were generating follow-up blunders. Punjab is a wound that is bleeding and bleeding with no bandage in sight. Nothing tangible has happened yet except grumblings by the PTI’s allies and power tussles over transfers, posting and petty powers. But behind this mass of continuing confusion there is rising a darkening storm that harkens forces that can overwhelm the depleting might of PTI. The unravelling — if it comes — will be sudden and brutal.
Nothing has happened yet. It may not for a while. But it is ominous when the perception of reality starts to change the reality of perception.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2020