RED ZONE FILES: State of the union

Updated 10 Sep 2020

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Islamabad holds many secrets. Most are waiting to be shared. Access enough of them and the dots start to connect. Soon a hazy picture comes into focus. It tells the story of what is going on, why it is going on and where is it all going. Shake it, mix it and distill it. A deep dive into the capital’s Red Zone brings up today’s 10 key takeaways:

  1. The PTI government is looking, sounding and acting increasingly confident. The central reason is that the ‘same page’ cliché is holding firm. Senior officials say there may be many points of friction between PTI and the Establishment, but overall the relationship is stable. This makes senior PTI people believe they will serve out the rest of their term without any serious danger.

  2. All political parties have tried to build bridges with the Establishment over the last two years. There have been clandestine contacts at various levels. Many such efforts continue. PML-N, PPP and JUI-F people have reached out to important power centres within the Establishment in a bid to build bridges and establish some kind of a working relationship. There has been some reciprocation in terms of providing access. However, no major breakthrough has happened and none is even in sight. The opposition remains outside the tent.

  3. Stability is the key word today. Important decision-makers firmly believe that any political turbulence that leads to chaos or uncertainty should be avoided. There appears to be a quiet consensus within the system that economic revival requires the government and the opposition to respect the duration of the five-year term. Subsequently, changes within the present assemblies — or within the existing power matrix — may not be a preferential option. All political stakeholders are gradually resigning to the fact that mid-term changes are unlikely for now.

  4. The opposition’s ‘All-Parties Conference’ (APC) is struggling for purpose. PML-N doesn’t have a clear position on what it really wants at this stage, PPP is drowning in its Sindh woes while grappling with the Karachi Transformation Package (KTP), and Maulana Fazlur Rehman — as per inside sources — is finding the system’s doors closing on him. The APC might create some temporary optics but the substance of the meeting will remain elusive. The opposition is struggling to find space for itself outside the parliament.

  5. The relentless pressure of ‘accountability’ on opposition leaders is expected to continue. Government sources say Prime Minister Imran Khan is refusing to budge on this front despite advice that he should focus his energies on key governance issues. The pressure will manifest itself through NAB and various executive agencies. However, this obsessive hounding of the opposition may start to provide diminishing returns to the PTI government. In the larger scheme of things, and within the overall context of PTI’s value to the system, an accountability drive that suffers credibility issues may come to be seen as counter-productive and a drag on the agenda that requires completion in the next three years.

  6. The initial discussions between the government and the opposition on amending NAB laws floundered because of the deep mutual distrust and the botched negotiations over the FATF bills, but the issue is not closed as yet. Sources from both sides say fresh talks are likely to start at some point soon. There is a general consensus that some reform is required in the NAB ordinance to address the genuine fears of the bureaucracy and business people. The opposition wants greater emphasis on addressing clauses that enable persecution of politicians through random detentions and public humiliation. Seen within the larger ambit of promoting greater stability within the system, it is expected that another round of negotiations may take place in the near future.

  7. PTI’s continued mishandling of Punjab has become a concern. It is in fact seen as a source of instability within a system that is requiring stability. The constant shuffling of senior officials — topped by the deeply politicised ouster of the IG Police — is keeping Punjab on the edge. Punjab is therefore increasingly being seen as a territory where the ‘same page’ relationship is experiencing pangs of stress. If there is one flashing red light that may introduce uncertainty in an otherwise stable relationship, it is Punjab. However, PTI leaders confide that so far there are no indications that their top leadership is in the mood to make any sweeping changes in the way it is handling Punjab.

  8. PTI and PML-Q relationship is under severe stress. There is almost zero interaction between the leaders and the misunderstandings are increasing by the day. Were it not for the presence of a ‘glue’ binding them together — in addition to that most powerful incentive for self-preservation — this marriage would have ended in a bad way. Punjab officials admit that they have been told not to fret too much over the original PTI agreement not to interfere in transfers and postings in the areas of PML-Q influence. Now PML-Q is usually not consulted before officials are reshuffled. One important PTI leader from PML-Q’s area of influence is said to be playing quite a spoiler. Trouble could flare up with the wag of a finger — if it ever came to that. PTI has needlessly opened another front that did not need to be opened.

  9. The Prime Minister is distracted. Insiders say he continues to spread himself too thin. He is involving himself in too many issues and projects and getting bogged down in details that do not require prime ministerial micro management. Too many meetings, too many presentations and too many small and big decisions that do not translate into actual action on the ground — all these are obstacles to focused, clear and prioritised decision-making. The Karachi package has been a major policy initiative that can see real change in the metropolis, but the post-announcement confusion and politicking — spurred of course by the deep polarisation between PTI and PPP — runs the danger of bogging the initiative down. The Establishment may intervene to get things moving. This would reinforce the perception that politicians are unable and unwilling to rise above their differences to form a working relationship that can deliver governance.

  10. Concerns about the 18th Amendment and its adverse financial effects on the federal government continue to simmer. Although there is no concrete plan to review it immediately, there is a growing realisation that at some point a discussion over it will need to take place. The timing may hinge on next March’s Senate elections which are expected to give PTI control over both houses of parliament. The federal government has not as yet done any detailed homework on the 18th Amendment but some provisions are being looked at minutely to see if a review can be managed. This may also become one part of a larger series of negotiations that may take place between various stakeholders on strategic political matters.

The PTI government may want to be careful lest complacency sets in. Safety and security are not always two sides of the same coin.

Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2020