RED ZONE FILES: Beyond our comfort zone

Updated 29 Oct 2020

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PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, JUI-F chairperson Fazlur Rehman and PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz seated on a stage set up at Karachi's Bagh-i-Jinnah, the venue of PDM's second rally. — Photo courtesy Twitter/File
PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, JUI-F chairperson Fazlur Rehman and PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz seated on a stage set up at Karachi's Bagh-i-Jinnah, the venue of PDM's second rally. — Photo courtesy Twitter/File

Everyone is hurting. Everyone needs a breather. Three bumper rallies by the opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has shaken Pakistan’s political equilibrium in more ways than one. The key stakeholders are rattled, nervous and exhausted. They need time to figure out what is happening and where it is heading. Luckily for all, they now have a breather — in fact 23 days of a breather till the next PDM rally in Peshawar on Sunday, November 22. Can this break in hostilities provide an opportunity for sanity to make a comeback?

There may be an incentive: No one likes to operate outside his or her comfort zone. Yet this is exactly what is happening since the PDM’s first jalsa in Gujranwala. The volatile session of the National Assembly on Wednesday — which saw scathing words from Murad Saeed, Ali Muhammad Khan, Akhtar Mengal, Khawaja Asif, and even Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri as he chaired the session — manifested the collective pressure and stress bearing down on all players. All realise they are heading into a blind alley. All have their own reasons to be uneasy. Here goes:

PTI: The government is like the fast bowler who is clocking speed but can’t get his line and length right. And it is now facing a batsman who is making aggressive use of his bat.

PTI is facing a perfect storm of inflation, insurrection and incompetence. This is making many members of the party nervous. This nervousness is rooted in a realisation that their core strengths are under stress. They define these strengths as: (a) Brand Imran, the incorruptible reformer who would usher in the change we have been waiting for; (b) the discrediting, degrading and dismantling of the opposition; and (c) the ironclad support of the establishment. Upon these three core strengths was constructed the towering edifice of the PTI government.

Brand Imran is under stress. He is fixated on a flawed accountability drive and obsessed with his opponents at the expense of governance while his promised reform is shimmering somewhere on the distant horizon. The opposition is less degraded and more resurgent today than it ever was. And the establishment? Well, officials say there is concern about how the country is being run, and especially how Punjab is being governed. Then there is the added factor of the direct criticism from Nawaz Sharif and the uncomfortable perception of being too aligned with the ruling party.

The prime minister is unwilling to cede an inch to the opposition. Many among his senior ranks know this is unsustainable in these circumstances. These circumstances are adverse: (a) Food inflation will persist for at least the rest of the year; (b) opposition will crank up the heat in the coming jalsas; (c) more tales of wheat crisis will emerge soon; (d) some ministers may be sacked and reshuffled, inflating the opposition’s narrative of sustained and focused governmental incompetence; (d) the second wave of Covid-19 is upon us; and (e) scheduled transfers and retirements of senior military officials (at least six three-star generals are due to retire in December and new appointments at the corps level are due). PTI’s comfort zone plans are suddenly not that comfortable.

PML-N: The party is like the batsman who has come out of his crease, taken a mighty swing of the bat, connected the ball — and is now waiting anxiously to see if the airborne ball crosses the boundary or falls in the hands of a fielder. It is an uncomfortable position to be in for the batsman who has swung, for the bowler who has been hit, and for the fielder who is watching the ball descend on him.

Many senior people in the party are shifting uneasily in their chairs after Nawaz Sharif’s speeches at the APC in Islamabad, then in Gujranwala and finally in Quetta. Party leaders have been in touch with the establishment off and on but since the latest speeches they are uncertain about where they stand. Their leader has barred any contacts without his knowledge so even informal contacts are deemed risky. And yet, the PML-N knows that its assault is meant to create space for itself. This space — if it opens up — will need to be negotiated. Negotiations require negotiators. The PML-N negotiators have for now been pushed into the background by the PML-N’s political Kung Fu masters.

Here’s what concerns many prospective negotiators: Nawaz Sharif’s aggression is not a product of widespread consultation with his senior cadre, but a decision made by him on his own. Most among his senior party members had no inkling that Sharif had decided to lock horns directly with the establishment by naming names. When he did — according to insiders — many in the party broke into cold sweat.

In recent days there has been some communication between the party and the establishment, but it remains inconclusive. The ball is travelling towards the boundary — and the catcher.

PPP: The party is like the batsman on the non-striker’s end watching his partner clobber the bowling. This batsman would prefer to remain on this end of the wicket and yet is uncomfortable in the realisation that he will need to take a run at some point and face the ball.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has held his part of the bargain so far. He has spoken aggressively at all three PDM jalsas (albeit less so in Quetta) and managed the crisis emanating from Sindh IG’s ‘kidnapping’ and arrest of retired captain Muhammad Safdar Awan. The significance of the fact that he directly addressed the army chief in his press conference after the Karachi mishap and Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa called him to assure him he would order an enquiry — yes, the significance of this interaction is not lost on those who are minutely watching the evolution of a very interesting relationship between the PPP and the establishment. There will soon be a new corps commander in Karachi. The choice would be equally interesting.

But there is unease within the party. With Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Maulana Fazlur Rehman — three hawks circling their prey — setting a confrontational tone for the PDM strategy, the PPP leadership is unsure of how far it would be willing to go against what PDM leaders call the ‘hybrid’ regime. There are three jalsas and two months to go before the intended long march to Islamabad. If any breakthrough has to happen, it has to happen in this period. Otherwise, PPP’s comfort zone will shrink even further. And if the PPP wins next month’s elections in Gilgit-Baltistan (Bilawal is campaigning furiously), it would be even more wary of a confrontation that could upset the political apple cart and scatter the apples all over the rocky road.

Establishment: This is where the cricket analogy becomes tricky. Is it the umpire that is accused of giving a wrong LBW? Is it the leg umpire that is dodging shots from the batsman? Or is it the chief selector whose team selection is under question?

The unprecedented nature of Nawaz Sharif’s critique is creating unease. Comfort zone this is not. What possible options does it have? (a) Retaliate against the critique; (b) advise the government to cool political temperatures by scaling down its rhetoric and repression (sedition cases have been filed against organisers of PDM’s Gujranwala rally); (c) establish communication with PDM to find some middle ground; (d) signal intent through careful choice of transfers/postings; and (e) some extreme option through pressing the reset button.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for all concerned. Beyond the comfort zone, there could be trouble. Or progress. It’s time to choose wisely.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2020