IT is getting messier. An increasingly strident opposition and an obstinate prime minister are now locked in a battle that may not have a winner. The battle lines are still hazy, notwithstanding the PDM’s impressive show of strength at the two recent rallies in Gujranwala and Karachi. The motley coalition is not clear who its main target is.
Nawaz Sharif’s no-holds-barred virtual speech at Gujranwala where he named names has once again shifted the battle lines: it is not the security establishment but its commander that is the target. The former prime minister’s latest narrative has changed the line of attack.
It may not be the first time that the military leadership has been blamed for conspiring against civilian dispensations in this country, but Sharif’s tirade has more serious connotations. It is not a military ruler but a serving army chief against whom wrongdoing has been alleged. There has been no mincing of words.
That seems to have changed the PDM’s entire battle plan that was meant to focus on the PTI government. Sharif’s scathing attack on the current military leadership may be too much for some alliance partners as well as his own party members.
The PM has the rare quality of pushing everyone into the opposition camp.
Unsurprisingly, the tenor of most opposition leaders at the two rallies was markedly less aggressive. They mostly kept their guns pointed at the prime minister and his failed policies. But it’s the former prime minister in self-exile who continues to dominate the PDM’s narrative.
There may not yet be a groundswell of support for the opposition movement, but the PDM rallies have already put the government on the back foot. Imran Khan has reacted to the opposition’s onslaught with his usual bluster, threatening to put his rivals into jail. His frustration was evident from his outburst against his opponents last week. He sounded like a leader who has already lost the plot.
He is conveniently using the establishment as a shield to confront the rising opposition challenge. But, perhaps, he knows that he is playing on a sticky wicket. His cover may not work when it comes to the crunch. It is not so much the opposition movement but his government’s failure that has been the main reason for him losing his popular base.
The shelf life of Pakistani elected civilian leaders in office is usually not very long, but the decline of the Khan government is indeed phenomenal. It has failed on almost every front. That has provided the opposition a very favourable situation to launch an offensive. The prime minister finds himself in a more precarious situation with fewer allies who too do not seem fully on board. He has the rare quality of pushing everyone into the opposition camp. It is now virtually the PTI versus the rest.
It is Punjab that could prove to be Khan’s Waterloo. The PTI-led coalition government hinges on a razor-thin majority in the province that is also the PML-N’s stronghold. All indicators show that the PTI is fast losing its popular base in the province due to its own ineptitude and inexperience. Many analysts agree that it’s probably the worst administration in the province in recent history. With an ineffective chief minister at the helm, the PTI government is hardly capable of stopping the opposition’s movement.
Given that the bureaucracy is up in arms, there is no functioning administration in place in the province. The rising prices of essential food items have largely been caused by governance failure. But there is hardly any realisation within government ranks about the seriousness of the crisis.
The prime minister now seeks to handle this crisis through his so-called Tiger Force. The controversial ‘volunteer force’ is now supposed to assist the administration and check inflation. It shows the utter bankruptcy of the government. Serious policy measures are substituted by gimmickry. With the opposition’s anti-government drive gaining momentum, it is hard to see how the provincial administration can deal with this challenge. That will have a direct bearing on the federal government.
With no indication of the prime minister coming out of his hallowed bubble, there is increasing pressure on the security establishment to deal with the situation. The escalating attack from the opposition has worsened its predicament. Nothing could be worse for institutional credibility.
It is an unprecedented situation limiting the options of the security establishment. Its position as an arbiter has also weakened. Any action against the opposition directly or indirectly involving the security agencies could deepen the crisis. The current stand-off can only be resolved through political means. What happened in Karachi where the IG was allegedly kidnapped by the security agencies and forced to order the arrest of a PML-N leader is ominous.
Regrettably, the prime minister appears incapable of rationally dealing with any political crisis. His confrontational approach has largely been responsible for the current political stand-off in the country. His recent speech that now the nation would see a “new Imran Khan” implies that he will come down much harder on the opposition and does not give hope of the rational political approach that is needed to defuse the situation. He is increasingly resorting to heavy-handed means to curtail freedom of expression. This may also push the opposition into taking a more aggressive stance.
It’s an extremely dangerous situation, with all the major political forces arrayed against an ineffective government relying on the security forces for its survival. Pakistan’s internal and external security cannot afford the growing political instability. A declining economic situation and rising unemployment have fuelled social unrest that could get worse if the political instability continues.
Indeed, the main responsibility lies with the government, but one hopes the opposition shows some rationality and does not take matters to the limit. One must learn some lesson from our history that the politics of confrontation encourages anti-democratic forces. There will be no winners. One can only hope that sanity prevails before it is too late.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2020