RED ZONE FILES: Shaken and stirred

Published November 12, 2020
Opposition parties leaders, from left, Maryam Nawaz, Shahbaz Sharif, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Yousuf Raza Gillani, and Mahmood Khan Achakzai attend an all parties conference in Islamabad, on June 26, 2019. — AP/File
Opposition parties leaders, from left, Maryam Nawaz, Shahbaz Sharif, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Yousuf Raza Gillani, and Mahmood Khan Achakzai attend an all parties conference in Islamabad, on June 26, 2019. — AP/File

As Covid-19 infections spike north, politics in the country is heading south. The NCOC has ratcheted up its concern about the spike in infections and is mulling closure of public places, but warring in the political amphitheatre is refusing to let up. Hidden within the folds of this intensifying conflict are some early signs of an impending chaos.

So what gives?

Recent events provide a glimpse into this cascading state of confusion. Each stakeholder is burdened with internal contradictions and external limitations. Let’s map this confusion player by player.

PTI government: According to insiders, there are essentially two concerns that are expressed quietly within the party. One pertains to the party’s unrelenting and inflexible approach towards the opposition regardless of the unfolding consequences. The second deals directly with the solidifying perception of governance mayhem, especially in Punjab. There is also a third factor that party people only whisper in hushed tones: the delicate relationship with the establishment and prospects of it straining.

Despite increasing demands for de-escalating the situation, the PTI government is doing the exact opposite. If ever there was any space to find middle ground, it is disappearing fast. Many within the party who have been around in politics for a long time can sense where this situation is headed. They are troubled. They are also helpless. No one has the standing, or the courage, to bell the cat. It is a sign of such worry that meetings of the federal cabinet are increasingly witnessing heated exchanges and mutual blame-game in a bid to pin a tail on the culprits.

There is frustration at the highest level that prices are not coming down despite all attempts. Such a state of affairs is amplified in Punjab where many party officials have now started verbalising their anger at the way that governance is being managed. PTI is fighting its internal demons while bracing for the onslaught from the external ones.

PML-N: The Nawaz Sharif narrative has catapulted the party to new heights of confrontation since the APC meeting. PML-N now constitutes the pointed end of the PDM spear. By going straight for his rivals’ centre of gravity, Sharif has upended all calculations and wrecked all the best laid plans.

Politics is now in a churn and the alignments of our political solar system are veering dangerously off course. But not everyone is celebrating. A very influential section of the party leadership is quietly — though yet unsuccessfully — advocating caution, prudence, and dialogue with the establishment if possible. The very public debate between PML-N camps has not died down, it has only gone private.

For now, Nawaz Sharif is not willing to hold back, and few are trying to make him do so. This may carry over past the Gilgit-Baltistan elections where Maryam Nawaz is whipping up voter sentiments with her father’s narrative, and it will spill over into PDM’s Peshawar jalsa, but many influential voices are quietly working to find some space that can allow for the sizzle to simmer down. The party is churning in its own convenient contradictions.

Government allies: PML-Q is fuming. It has been for a while now. Part of the reason is professional and part personal. The Chaudhrys are content with Usman Buzdar as the chief minister of Punjab but they are not OK with the Centre dictating how the Punjab bureaucracy should facilitate — or not — their political work in the area of their influence. There’s also the adamant refusal of the prime minister to give Moonis Ilahi a cabinet position which the PML-Q says was committed to them. On a personal level, they are severely disappointed that the prime minister has not visited Chaudhry Shujaat to ask after his health. The PML-Q-PTI alliance is hanging by a thread and waiting for an excuse to rupture.

The BNP (Mengal) has already broken ranks with PTI and the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) may be bracing for trouble. In March 2021, PTI will command a majority in the Senate and already there are voices in the party saying PTI should have its own chairman of the upper house. Some self-declared candidates have started flexing their ambitions in private. Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani of BAP wants to hang on to his position but he senses the danger knowing full well the mood inside PTI and the possible transfer of important people who have his back. BAP’s alliance with PTI may be tested soon. There is a churn among the allies.

Establishment: The ‘Karachi incident’ and its fallout in terms of reprimands against officers of the ISI and Rangers has created ripples. It is an incident that the establishment could have done without. The fact that the army chief took action as per the court of enquiry has blunted criticism to significant level — as has a positive reaction from Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari — but the unease triggered by the brazenness of the act of mistreating/kidnapping the IG Police lingers on.

Editorial: The 'Karachi incident' has unnecessarily dragged the military into an ugly political fracas

What has brought matters to a stage where such an action could even be considered? Unease creates a churn. Churn can have an unsettling effect.

The PPP and JUI-F are watching this big churn with deep interest knowing full well their parties do not have to deal with their internal contradictions the way these other stakeholders are doing.

The wheels of politics are spinning fast and furious with the churn of contradiction and competing interests; with the confusion of internal disagreements and external limitations; and with the high anxiety of uncertain outcomes linked to events on the streets in the coming weeks.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2020

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