RED ZONE FILES: Race against time

Updated 16 Jul 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

There is unease in Islamabad. It’s like in the movies: the wind is whistling and scattering leaves on streets that are eerily quiet and deserted save for the faint footsteps of a few scared people scurrying home. Something ominous is about to happen….

But perhaps not yet.

Some of this unease is genuine, some manufactured — but all is felt. The gover­n­­­­ment is groaning under the pressure of performance anxiety, the opposition is bris­tling at its inability to pose a serious challenge to Prime Minister Imran Khan and other key stakeholders are wringing their hands in frustration over the discrepancy between envisioned reality and the real one.

At hand is a four-layered complexity. Visualise the diagram of a soil we had all learnt back in school which illustrated various levels of soil from the surface downwards. Today’s layered political complexity mirrors the soil diagram:

The first layer is the ‘topsoil’. In pedology (scientific study of soil) terms, the topsoil contains decomposed material and organic matter. It is here that seeds germinate and roots of the plant grow. In political terms, topsoil is the surface layer of daily routine activities, statements, press conferences, parliamentary proceedings and media shows that constitute the most visible aspect of the existing situation. The second layer is the ‘subsoil’. In pedology terms it is comparatively harder and more compact and also rich in minerals. In political terms, this second layer consists of governance issues including running of government, initiation and management of projects, as well as formulation and implementation of policies.

The third layer is the ‘parent rock’. In pedology terms this layer consists of small pieces of rocks with cracks and crevices. In political terms, this third layer is the politics that takes place behind closed doors and shapes schemes, alliances, strategies and agendas that have a direct bearing on the prevailing situation. The fourth layer is the ‘bedrock’. In pedology terms this is solid rock at the bottom and is non-porous. In political terms, this fourth layer denotes the critical dynamics between the establishment and political entities vying for power. The bedrock often determines the shape of things.

Today there is some movement in all four layers. Unease is a by-product. At the topsoil, notice a sudden renewed frenzy of activity: the Sindh JIT storm in a teacup, prime minister’s sudden interest in appearing in the parliament, PTI hawks’ increasing attacks on the opposition, a disturbing offensive against Khawaja Asif, The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister’s newfound focus on the doddering BRT project, amplified noise of a possible change in Punjab leadership, and the government’s greater deference to a hybrid model of governance via high-profile coverage of activities in the National Com­mand and Operations Centre (NCOC) and National Locust Control Centre (NLCC).

At the subsoil, notice the toxic fallout of a never-ending series of governance crises: sugar, wheat, petrol, aviation within a larger crucible of infighting between elected and non-elected cabinet members. Then, of course, there’s the unbearable lightness of being midway through the five-year term without having any legacy projects on the horizon.

At the parent rock, notice renewed vigour among the opposition leaders to stitch something together in a hurry and bring the house down. It is almost like they smell blood. PPP and Maulana Fazlur Rehman appear the most gung-ho while PML-N is trying to figure out a strategy. The planned All Parties Conference (APC) may offer a hint of how serious these efforts are. But for this to happen, the APC has to happen. For now, that’s just a wish.

At the bedrock, notice the perception that a hunt is on for options. Where is this perception coming from? Nobody will say but everybody will add to it. From private conversations to anecdotal evidence to calculated whispers to mainstream media discussions back to private discussion — this loop takes on a life of its own by fuelling its own cyclical movement that grows in strength and reach as it loops with greater speed and louder noise.

PTI insists it is on the same page with the establishment and the prime minister says there’s no other option other than PTI. In a strange way, he may be right. In its present shape and form, the opposition does not offer an exercisable option. This much even opposition leaders admit privately. PPP insiders are frank enough to say they neither have parliamentary numbers with other opposition parties nor leverage with the establishment — so far — to become a viable option. They also say they don’t know what the PML-N wants because, well, perhaps even the PML-N doesn’t know what the PML-N wants. A grand opposition is a grand idea whose time has clearly not come.

Red Zone insiders say it is now a race against time for all stakeholders. This time is measured in corona months. There will be a spike in infections on Eid. This spike will register by middle of August and then in the third week of August Muharram will start. Officials say they expect the infection to spike again as a large number of citizens will gather throughout the next few weeks for observing religious practices. Muharram will end by late September and the spike in cases will travel all the way into October. By all estimates — even the best ones — the virus situation will remain at an elevated level till the end of the year.

Both the government and the opposition have factored the Covid-19 timeline into their plans. PTI officials say they aim to consolidate their position by the end of the year through better governance optics thereby reconfirming their claim that they are indeed the only option. Opposition leaders say they aim to have a combined strategy ready and in motion latest by the end of the year thereby presenting a viable option.

These noble aims are easier said than achieved. The experienced and grounded politicians in the government understand that governance issues in the centre and Punjab will not get resolved in a few months because the underlying reasons are deeper than the capacity issues of a few individuals. The experienced and grounded members of the opposition also understand that engaging the establishment at the exclusion of PTI is a project unto itself that will have to be managed by PPP and PML-N separately. Doing so generates another set of complexities — what to negotiate on and what to negotiate for — which neither party has resolved so far.

Unease is percolating down into the four layers of our political soil.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2020