IN Islamabad, ‘tis the season to worry. People have started sniffing for a whiff of altered intent. Something is in the air that portends turbulence. The new normal is anything but normal.

What is normal is alarming. The government is slipping down a slippery slope by slipping in perception, slipping in performance and slipping in control. To make matters worse, it is also leaking like a sieve.

This has a direct correlation with what is happening in London. With Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif keeping their cards close to their chest, the mystery of the famed thawing between them and the establishment is an added pressure on the unsteady government. What if the page is turning? Parliamentarians are speaking in whispers about altered intent gradually altering reality. The wind is slowly but surely warming for the once-ostracised PML-N. Recently the PTI top leadership made an audacious attempt to weaken the Sharifs. What transpired is reflective of the perception that is solidifying on a daily basis.

A very informed source confided in me that the PTI leadership decided to take the fight to the PML-N heartland by orchestrating a forward block within its parliamentary party in the Punjab Assembly. They approached many PML-N MPAs with offers whose generosity knew no bounds. Tens of millions of rupees in development funds for their constituencies, full support for their thana/katcheri issues, complete coordination and facilitation from the local administration and police and many other goodies that a sitting government can offer. In normal times, many MPAs would have found such offers hard to refuse. But this time?

Not one MPA accepted the offer and not one MPA agreed to violate discipline. Why? Here’s what one such MPA told someone: “Why should we ditch PML-N now when we know the party will be back in power soon?”

Are there any concrete indications that PML-N is about to re-enter the corridors of power? No. Is there any substantive evidence that the PTI government at the centre or in Punjab is about to fall? No. And yet, those politicians who are experts at sniffing the wind are sniffing altered intent. There is unease on the treasury benches.

There is no single factor causing this unease but a combination of them snowballing down the political slope. For instance, a ruling party parliamentarian told me that pressure from his constituency to deliver on projects, works, favours and employment was growing on a daily basis. He said this pressure was shared by almost all colleagues he had spoken to. But the party leadership, he says, seems unconcerned.

Another insider shared an anecdote with me. One day the prime minister was chairing a meeting of treasury parliamentarians when one member complained about the lack of development funds and how this was becoming a huge handicap for him and his colleagues. The prime minister got irritated and retorted that MNAs should stop this constant complaining because “development works don’t win elections”. He then gave his own example, saying he had not financed many projects in his constituency and yet he had won.

Still, this lack of funds is a huge factor causing unease and parliamentarians are openly grumbling about it. One such example is a group of PTI MNAs who call themselves the “G7” (yes, they are actually seven in number). They have been cribbing quietly that no one is there to hear their woes about severe lack of funds and as a result they avoid going to their constituencies for risk of facing the scorn of their voters.

Another big factor for unease is the growing intensity in the infighting that is raging within PTI. Inside the party ranks it is a well-known secret that traditional “camps” continue to undermine each other in the eyes (and ears) of the prime minister. The latest, however, is that a triangular fight has broken out inside the higher party echelons.

A different set of people now has the prime minister’s ear and the ones who enjoyed this privilege before now find themselves struggling with shrinking access and influence. In PTI, there is a cyclical trend of people falling from grace only to claw their way back into the leader’s good books and then finding themselves shunted out again. This cycle is playing itself out with gusto today.

Enough said about that for now.

This sense of drift is aggravating unease all over. Inflation is becoming an existential crisis for the government but the response is far from crisis-like. There are meetings upon meetings and statements upon statements; there are incoherent press briefings that say everything except what needs to be said and fiery parliamentary speeches that focus on everything except what really needs to be focused on. If the government has a policy direction for getting a grip on this runaway inflation and its devastating effect on Pakistanis, it sure has hidden that plan well. The recent relief package through utility stores is a drop in the ocean and reinforces the perception that the government is unable to grasp the scale of the crisis.

This leads to yet another cause for unease: the prime minister’s impersonal (some say imperious) style of governing. One senator grumbled to me that at a time like this, the prime minister should have rolled up his sleeves and dove into the public arena. He said the PM should be out and about in markets and streets and rural mandees talking to people, listening to their grievances, putting his hand on their shoulders to express his concern and lending his support.

Optics matter hugely. When every Pakistani is groaning under the crushing weight of inflation, it does not help for the prime minister to be seen each day sitting on his swivel chair in his swanky office conversing with random politicians, businessmen and former cricketers.

The unease is growing.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2020