RED ZONE FILES: Surviving change

Updated 09 Jul 2020


Prime Minister Imran Khan fuelled speculations when he referred to the ‘minus one’ formula in his speech on the floor of the National Assembly. — PM Imran's Instagram/File
Prime Minister Imran Khan fuelled speculations when he referred to the ‘minus one’ formula in his speech on the floor of the National Assembly. — PM Imran's Instagram/File

There is great disorder under the heavens and the situation is excellent.

Mao Zedong may or may not have said this quote attributed to him but the words continue to find relevance in different eras across different countries — as they do today in Imran Khan’s Pakistan.

Mao referred to disorder being the harbinger of change. In Pakistan, change may have become the harbinger of disorder. Which in turn is now spurring talk of the other kind of change. In the last two weeks or so, the federal capital has been humming with chatter about some political transformations in the offing. The prime minister fuelled such speculations when he referred to the ‘minus one’ formula in his speech on the floor of the National Assembly. Since then varied scenarios of what this transformation could look like have been swirling around in hushed conversations. Some have spilled over into the media and triggered speculation all across the land.

In other words, is the prime minister under threat? The answer lies hidden inside a complex situation situated within a complex political matrix. This matrix links the politics of the Centre to the knotted and tangled situation in Punjab which in turn weaves itself into the increasingly non-linear relationship between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Park this mega-mix of complications within the contextual cauldron of mal-governance and we have ourselves a mighty fine case of disorder under the heavens echoing with the question: Is the PTI experiment unravelling?

Not so fast, say PTI diehards. They do acknowledge they are being savaged in the court of public opinion, and they relate to Rocky Balboa being punched to a pulp by Ivan Drago in Rocky 4. PTI bravehearts can afford a smile at this analogy. They know who won that fight. The difference however between Rocky Balboa and PTI today is that Rocky had a plan.

The situation on our political front is unravelling according to no plan, actually. This is what makes it so disorderly and so excellent. In the Centre, all talk of ‘minus one’ is getting bogged down in practicalities — or lack of them. ‘Minus one’ would mean — one supposes — the continuation of a PTI government without Imran Khan as the prime minister. Many key people within the treasury and opposition benches have already war-gamed this scenario with numbers. But before numbers comes logic. This logic says for a ‘minus one’ to happen, Imran Khan will need to either step aside voluntarily and make way for someone from among his senior colleagues, or he will need to be forced out.

The first option may be convenient for those who want Mr Khan to ride away into the sunset, but hard-nose realists know it is highly unlikely that he would step aside on his own. If that be so, the only other way is to successfully bring a vote of no confidence against him. Is that doable?

The answer lies — yet again — in numbers and logic. But here let us leave the logic for later and look at the numbers. This scenario has also been quietly war-gamed inside the Red Zone. The numbers say fairly clearly that a vote of no confidence cannot succeed unless one or two of the major allied parties break ranks. There exists today no compelling reason for them to do so; unless of course they would want to see a change at the top without a change in government. This would entail a grand re-arrangement of the political consensus whose foundational logic would be to bring in at least one of the two main opposition parties into the ruling coalition thereby building a larger national consensus for governance. Would any opposition party see an advantage in becoming a part of such a scenario? It is a tough ask.

But so was saving the Senate chairman from certain defeat in the vote of no confidence.

If numbers don’t add up in any obvious calculation, why this sudden buzz? Is the government suffering from an inevitable mid-life crisis? Are the electors? For those who have seen life cycles of governments in Islamabad since the Benazir Bhutto regime in 1988 know well that there are rumours and then there are rumours. The difference between the two can often be an existential one for those reveling in power inside the Red Zone. Prime Minister Imran Khan may not be fighting for his political survival — yet — but political observers say the sudden buzz could well be someone (or many) signalling warnings that there is great disorder under the heavens and the situation is not as excellent as Mr Khan imagines.

Why does he imagine so, if he imagines so? Some cabinet ministers admit that feedback loops that should travel back to his office are clogged with vested interests. Also, no one wants to be the bearer of un-good news. For instance, the sugar crisis continues to sour the alleged sweetness of the sugar report and yet a solution to bring down prices remains elusive. Two sugar barons were recently summoned to a meeting to discuss this very situation. They were met by a key federal minister who was accompanied by a Special Assistant to the PM (SAPM) who wields power like a battle axe. The two PTI leaders told the barons to bring down the price of sugar to Rs63/kg. When they protested their costs etc. they were told must do it, regardless. Too early to see if policymaking with an axe yields results.

Speaking of results — or lack of them — there’s of course the Punjab. Rumblings of change have never been too far from the province ever since the incumbent chief executive found himself placed on the seat of power. As Islamabad started to resonate with chatter in recent weeks, so did Lahore. Change here too can be deciphered through numbers and logic. The logic is clear: those who wield permanent power have been asking for a change since last year. A senior-level insider confides that at a high-level meeting some time back a very powerful official forcefully argued for a change in Punjab and actually gave the example of cricketer Mansoor Akhtar to remind the prime minister of some not-so-good choices. Yet nothing happened.

Since last week, one name of a contender to the Punjab throne has been quietly injected into the whispering bloodline. But numbers complicate the situation. PML-Q stands firmly between the incumbent and the exit door. PML-Q has the numbers and the clout. So unless they agree, the incumbent appears safe. They could give a nod, but that nod would entail a cost that neither the prime minister nor the permanent power wielders would want to pay at this stage.

Between the complexities in the Centre and in Punjab, the political situation resembles a massive traffic jam: many powerful stakeholders are wanting to push and pull in different directions for different outcomes to somehow find a route out of this governance mess and yet they are all stuck within the folds of this complex matrix of numbers, agendas and baggage of the past.

There is a reboot button. But no one wants to push it. Yet.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2020