RED ZONE FILES: Noisy quiet meetings

Updated 24 Sep 2020

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The meeting of various political leaders with the COAS and DG ISI held great significance and none more important than the fact that it happened. — AFP/File
The meeting of various political leaders with the COAS and DG ISI held great significance and none more important than the fact that it happened. — AFP/File

What a week!

If Nawaz Sharif’s aggressive speech was not enough, and the disclosure that a galaxy of opposition leaders had a meeting with Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa was not enough, now comes a breaking news late on Wednesday evening that PML-N leader Mohammad Zubair requested for, and had, two meetings with COAS in which he discussed issues relating to Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz.

There’s more: the news of this meeting was not leaked, or ascribed to unnamed officials or attributed to sources, but was announced on TV by DG ISPR Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar. This signals clear intent.

Why?

In a strange mix of events this week, the timelines got all messed up. The meeting of opposition leaders — including those from PML-N — with Gen Bajwa and DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed took place more than a week ago. But it was kept under wraps. It is fair to assume that Mian Nawaz Sharif was in the loop that his party members were meeting the COAS. Then the MPC took place a few days later and Nawaz Sharif took a very strong position against the establishment. When he made this scorching speech, the context of his party members’ meeting with COAS was not yet public. When the news of the meeting broke on media, PML-N’s positioning suffered a few blows. How could top leaders of the party be willingly meeting the COAS and agreeing on a key strategic issue pertaining to Gilgit-Baltistan only to have their party chief blast the establishment a few days later? However, on Wednesday morning Maryam Nawaz told journalists such meetings should be held in the parliament and not in GHQ and that no representative of Nawaz Sharif had met the COAS.

In the evening, the world was told Mohammad Zubair had met the COAS who, according to the DG ISPR, told him that legal issues of Nawaz Sharif would be decided by the courts and the political ones by the parliament. Was this in response to some relief asked by Mohammad Zubair? He denies.

But what no one can deny is that things have become more complicated for PML-N. The latest complication arises from the fact that the party leadership’s aggressive positioning on the establishment does not gel well with its consistent engagement — directly and otherwise — with the military leadership. Many such meetings dealt with official issues but some were also personal in nature. Could they have taken place without the knowledge of the top party leadership? It sounds improbable but the leaders may now have to give explanations that can address these contradictions.

There are many influential people within the PML-N who have never been comfortable with the aggressive anti-establishment policy of the party. Such people have been pushed on the defensive since Nawaz Sharif’s speech at the MPC and with Wednesday’s complications, many will be quietly saying “we told you so”.

It did not have to be so. PTI’s struggle with governing the country was going in their favour. According to the script, PTI was expected to deliver. Twenty-six months later, the scorecard isn’t reading too well. There is concern among influential quarters that the PTI government is not evolving as swiftly as it should, and there is greater concern that the Punjab government is still unable to pass the smell test. And yet, PTI remains the only game in town. Or that’s what PTI says.

PML-N did not have to believe this. The meeting of various political leaders with the COAS and DG ISI held great significance and none more important than the fact that it happened. And it happened without Prime Minister Imran Khan. Here are the key takeaways from this fact:

The issue of according Gilgit-Baltistan a provincial status and integrating it into the federation is a truly strategic decision that requires a national consensus. All political parties needed to be taken on board. But the prime minister does not want to speak with the opposition leaders, let alone negotiate with them or establish a bare minimum working relationship that is required to build a political consensus around this issue, or any issue of such significance.

The fallout of this absence of a working relationship between the prime minister and the opposition has manifested itself in this meeting on GB and the role of the military leadership. The wheels of the system have to keep moving. Meetings have to take place, decisions have to be arrived at and negotiations have to ensue. If the prime minister is refusing to sit across the table in the same room with the opposition, he is abdicating a key role that will be filled by others.

Bilawal Bhutto said on Wednesday that in this meeting his party had raised the issue of the fairness and transparency of the GB elections with the DG ISI. He said all stakeholders recognise that GB is a strategically vital issue for Pakistan and an electoral controversy should be avoided at all costs. He is right. The meeting accorded all sides an opportunity to hear each other out and distill some much-needed wisdom from the discourse. By absenting himself — and signalling that he would rather stay away from such crucial discussions than sit with the opposition — the prime minister has created a vacuum that is unlikely to serve his government well.

The passage of the FATF bills and the narrative built around them is said to have set a wrong precedent. Legislation on FATF was also handled as a national issue that needed to be shielded from partisan politicking. There were multiple rounds of talks between the government and the opposition (none that included the prime minister) and there was no major obstacle that could not have been crossed with patient negotiation. But the zero sum nature of the relationship led government to bulldoze the bills while saying the opposition was blackmailing the government for personal gains.

On GB, similar fears are now gradually being heard in Islamabad. The absence of a working relationship is becoming a point of concern. Senior officials in the government concede that the establishment has been advising the government to improve its relationship with the opposition so that on important issues all key stakeholders can be taken on board. So far the PTI leadership has not relented. The chasm persists.

But this is not the only chasm that may have widened this week. The speech by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the opposition’s MPC took almost everyone’s breath away. PML-N leaders admit many among them, including the senior lot, were not aware their leader was about to deliver such a sizzler.

Here are key takeaways from his speech gleaned from speaking to various opposition members:

a) Nawaz Sharif is not expected to return to Pakistan anytime soon. His senior colleagues within the party have advised him that he can serve the cause better by remaining overseas and providing leadership to the party in terms of public messaging and private policymaking. This is the same reason a Twitter account in his name has also been created.

b) Party leaders say many factors contributed to Sharif’s aggressive speech, one of which was the fact that despite all attempts to soften stance, the party had not been able to win any political space or reciprocity. Many channels of quiet communication were employed by the party leadership at various levels but the leadership felt they were accruing no dividends.

However, after DG ISPR’s announcement of Mohammad Zubair’s meeting, the wording of the announcement suggests that the establishment has opted to not stay quiet in the wake of Nawaz’s speech. Does this enhance political space for the government? Most likely. Does this close many doors on the PML-N? Even likelier. Does this have an adverse impact on the party’s new and aggressive narrative? Likelier still.

What a week! And it’s only Thursday.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2020