RED ZONE FILES: Here comes Round 2

Published November 19, 2020
This combination file photo shows PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. — DawnNewsTV/File
This combination file photo shows PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. — DawnNewsTV/File

As Peshawar readies for the PDM jalsa this Sunday, there are fears that the window for a political solution to the present morass is beginning to gradually close. The opposition says the only option it has then: raise the temperature.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) had crafted a plan at the multiparty conference and drawn up a list of its demands as well as a schedule of its activities. This plan was a product of lengthy negotiations between key stakeholders within the alliance. The PML-N and JUI-F had wanted more radical demands to be included in the final document while the PPP and ANP, among others, preferred a gradual escalation of tempo. The compromise document tried to strike a balance in order to bind the alliance on a basic common denominator. Nearly two months on, PDM remains on script except for some deviations and hiccups that its leaders claim have been surmounted and ironed out.

The schedule was clear. Round 1 entailed jalsas in Gujranwala, Karachi and Quetta. Then there was the nearly three weeks long break for the GB election campaign. Round 2 includes jalsas in Peshawar, Multan and Lahore (and a later one in Larkana on the death anniversary of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto). Round 3 is the long march to Islamabad (and whatever transpires after that).

So far the scorecard is satisfactory from the PDM’s perspective. Round 1 has delivered the intended ‘shock and awe’ to the system and rattled the government in terms of crowds and narrative-framing. There has been sufficient mobilisation of the opposition’s workers and their political machinery. For the Peshawar jalsa, JUI-F and ANP have been working jointly in terms of planning, logistics, organisation and galvanisation of participants. For the Multan and Lahore jalsas, PML-N’s party machinery has been slogging away for weeks via its electables to get the voters and supporters charged up. All parties feel confident that Round 2 will produce more light and heat than Round 1.

And yet, the barometer of success as measured in outcome achieved remains hazy. Roaring jalsas reverberating with heart-thumping music and soaring rhetoric make for good optics but they remain not an end but a means to it. The PDM’s defiance was supposed to lead to a weakening of the government and the creation of greater space for the opposition. It was also expected to put the establishment on the back foot and trigger a rethink about its full support to the PTI government.

Some of these outcomes may have been achieved partially with Round 1. But vague assessments are a poor replacement for measurable outcomes. Round 2 therefore starts with a quiet hope that the other side will blink first. It’s a risky strategy. Inside the secure comforts of the Red Zone, PML-N insiders say their leader in London has enough ammunition with him to raise the political temperature much higher than Round 1. They say he possesses material that shows important functionaries conspiring against his government and influencing decisions that led to his ouster. But will he use this thermonuclear stuff in Round 2?

This question makes people squirm everywhere, and especially inside the PDM itself. PML-N insiders admit that in Round 2 Nawaz Sharif has to calibrate his strategy while keeping in mind reactions from the establishment as well as from his own allies. This in light of the hiccups that nearly fractured the alliance. Sharif’s complete ‘rejection’ of the Karachi incident enquiry report that was ordered by the army chief and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s welcoming it was a divergence that could have ruptured into a wound. Smart and timely politics by the two sides stitched up the cleavage. But the episode illustrated the weak and vulnerable points within the alliance. Sharif knows if the PDM has to have the desired impact through its campaign of street defiance, the PPP has to go along at every step. Raising the temperature against the establishment could risk this. And yet, without raising it, can he apply the kind of pressure he wants to apply? Therein lies the dilemma that Round 2 must solve.

What makes the PDM’s narrative potent however is the unstable situation of governance in Punjab. Last week some provincial ministers had met Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad and shared a long list of grievances against the way the province was being run. This week Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar had a testy exchange with some ministers during a cabinet meeting. Tempers are fraying in Lahore and tensions are mounting within the provincial team of ministers. This will take a further toll on the already struggling governance in the province. A very senior state official who has an inside view of governance both in Islamabad and Lahore recently said that PTI was burning its political capital in Punjab. The state of affairs worries many senior people in the government. There isn’t much they can do for now.

But this suits the PDM, and especially the PML-N. A senior party leader from central Punjab confided that his party colleagues had been facing pressures from various official circles. However he says even those among the party electables who are uncomfortable with Sharif’s narrative have to grin and bear it, because they have nowhere else to go at this stage. Why would they risk their careers knowing well that the PML-N ticket is still the strongest one in central Punjab?

Round 2 is focused on Punjab. This is PTI’s weakest link. The attack is coming while the house is divided. The next four weeks are critical. Buckle up.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2020

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