What does Nawaz Sharif want?

Published October 3, 2020
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

HE took his time. He held his silence. He let suspense build. Now he has spoken. But words are the outward manifestations of his thoughts. His thoughts have sculpted his plans. His plans have begun to unfold on the ground. The ground is bracing for battle. The battle has many fronts.

Is the other side ready?

To win, it is critically important to know your opponent’s strength and weaknesses. The other side should acknowledge, for instance, that no one in today’s politics knows the Pakistani system better than Nawaz Sharif. He is a product of this system and he has worked it and governed it for more than three decades. He knows what makes this system tick. He is aware of how the establishment works, how the politician thinks and how the bureaucracy moves. He has a feel for the constituency and a sense of the electable; he understands the limits of political power and the limitations of being out of it; and he knows the gains of cooperation versus the pains of confrontation.

Situate this fact in the post-MPC political matrix. Nawaz Sharif has taken a decision: he will take the fight to the other side. We are now in win-lose territory. By venturing back into this territory, Nawaz has acknowledged that he is willing to take on the odds stacked against him. These are heavy odds. He is physically away from the battleground; his team is under constant threat of arrests and the entire system — government, judiciary and establishment — is arrayed against him for political, legal and other reasons. He is a wanted man and a fugitive from law. It is, by all standards, an unequal fight.

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Nawaz is a rational player. He has chosen the path of confrontation as a rational act that adds up despite the risks entailed. To reach this conclusion, he has weighed in multiple factors. In fact, he has calculated all options and projected counter-options that are based on his deep knowledge of the system. In other words, he has war-gamed the situation.

He has chosen the path of confrontation as a rational act that adds up despite the risks entailed.

Accordingly, he has fired the first shot. Three hard-hitting, direct and accusatory speeches within 10 days have sent political temperatures soaring. This is uncharted territory. The political class is aghast. How could he be so suicidal? How could he name those who cannot be named? How could he burn all boats and bridges and yet expect to sail on them or cross them?

But he is a rational actor and there must be some method in this ‘madness’. So he has fired the first shot after having war-gamed the counter shot from the other side. He will then fire his second shot and he has also war-gamed the counter shot to the second shot. He wants to climb up the escalatory ladder because he has war-gamed that for his every move, the other side has to retaliate with a higher calibre. Those in control must not be seen to lose an ounce of control and to ensure this they have to assert control every time someone challenges this control. Climbing up the escalatory ladder suits Nawaz.

So is he baiting the other side?

The three speeches are deliberately provocative. He is poking the other side in the eye. Will they take a swing? They could desist from doing so. But this may be seen as a sign of weakness, or indecision, or lack of options. And if they retaliate? Arrests, cases, raids, hearings — if all these and much more suddenly start to happen onto Nawaz’s team on the ground, it might escalate matters, which is what Nawaz has war-gamed already. Clever.

But there’s more. What if they do not retaliate with actions but with words? After all, words are all that Nawaz has. But there’s a problem. He is targeting those who cannot respond with words. Did he war-game this too? If they cannot respond with words, random official spokespeople are assigned the task. Ah! Here’s the weakness in the system. If it’s a war of words between Nawaz and random lightweight official spokespeople, it is not a fight — it’s a massacre.

Why? Because random official spokespeople suffer from two grievous and debilitating weaknesses: first, they do not have the stature or the political weight or the gravitas to slug it out with Nawaz; second, they are armed with a pre-multiparty conference narrative. Nawaz has now shifted the goalposts but someone forgot to tell the random official spokespeople. They are throwing punches in the air.

So what can the other side do? The other side has to first determine Nawaz’s vulnerability and then go after that. No, it’s not Maryam. Yes sure, every father’s vulnerability is his daughter, and in that sense she is, but in the political sense it is clear that Nawaz has war-gamed the possibility of Maryam being arrested again. Her arrest would in fact feed into his new narrative and charge up the base. What other option does the other side have? Nawaz’s strength is his cause and his team. The cause is metaphysical but the team is merely physical. Can the other side break his team? Can it shrink his parliamentary numbers through defections? Can it wound Nawaz by depriving him of those who are fighting the fight on the ground on his call from thousands of miles away?

Is Nawaz’s team — not the core members but the hundreds of parliamentarians in provincial and federal assemblies — ready to rough it out with their leader? We will know soon enough.

War is coming. Nawaz is using his speeches as artillery bombardment to soften the battlefield for the ground assault through jalsas and rallies. Hostilities are about to break out.

Nawaz knows what he wants. Does the other side?

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, October 3rd, 2020

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