RED ZONE FILES: Courting crisis

Published December 10, 2020
PML-N's Maryam Nawaz, PPP's Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend the PDM's Peshawar rally on Nov 22. — AFP/File
PML-N's Maryam Nawaz, PPP's Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend the PDM's Peshawar rally on Nov 22. — AFP/File

PDM is finally stepping into rough terrain. It has been relatively smooth sailing for the opposition alliance these last few months. They had surmounted the initial obstacle of scattered defiance by agreeing on joining hands and then producing a document that formalised their presence on the proverbial same page. Then it was one jalsa after another with friction — if any — confined to administrative and organisational irritants of a minor nature. The December 13 Lahore jalsa presents a huge logistical and mobilisational challenges and yet surmounting them does not pose a huge problem for an experienced political entity like PML-N.

It is after the Lahore jalsa that the PDM will need to start its real heavy lifting.

Much of this lifting may entail bench-pressing with the weight of its inner conflicts. These conflicts are subtly yet surely pitting the priorities of PML-N and JUI-F against those of PPP and ANP. These pulls and pushes within the alliance will determine what the PDM can achieve or not in the next few weeks.

According to PDM sources, the debate within the alliance revolves around one central theme: approach towards the establishment. There is unanimity of opinion about doing whatever it takes to bring about a regime change, but differences crop up when the discussion veers towards whether to actively engage the establishment — which assumes an end to person-specific attacks on the army chief and DG ISI — or to keep punching away in the hope that this regime’s centre of gravity would get unhinged and open up space for the opposition to go for PTI’s jugular without having to worry about covering its own flanks.

The troika of Nawaz Sharif, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Maryam Nawaz constitutes the hardline block within the alliance. Senior leaders of PML-N acknowledge that in recent months Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman have established a very close and well-coordinated relationship. In fact, during the negotiations over FATF, Nawaz Sharif had given a dressing down to his own parliamentarians when the maulana had called him in London to complain that he was not consulted by the PML-N team in the parliament. PML-N negotiators were suitably chastened and now no one takes the maulana for granted.

The PPP and ANP continue to hold a relatively softer line towards the establishment. This fault line — subtle as it may be — constitutes a latent threat to the alliance and is generating subtle sub-surface tension inside PDM. The negotiations over resignations are at a delicate stage. At the heart of these negotiations is the scope of resignations followed by their impact. PDM insiders say they are discussing the following options:

1) Resign from the National Assembly and not from the provincial ones; 2) resign from all assemblies, and; 3) resign from National Assembly and Punjab Assembly while allowing PPP to retain the Sindh government.

Then there’s the issue of the much-hyped long march. There are a number of influential voices within the PDM who are cautioning that a long march leading to a protracted dharna in the bitter January cold of Islamabad is not a good option.

There’s even been some discussion about not undertaking a long march at all and replacing it with a continuous stream of ‘agitational’ activity finally leading to mass resignations.

The value of such agitation was driven home during PDM’s Multan jalsa and its mishandling by the Punjab government. The decision to disallow the jalsa, padlock the venue and crack down on opposition workers created a ruckus that played well on media. In fact, it generated headlines for days, thereby providing the PDM — and especially its Multan leadership — a great opportunity to whip up its base through a show of defiance. Former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and his sons hit a political jackpot in terms of their local politics in the area. The two PTI MNA’s from Multan — Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and SAPM on Political Affairs Amir Dogar — were not amused, to say the least.

According to Red Zone insiders, they complained to the prime minister that they were not even consulted before the Punjab government took the decision to crackdown in their constituencies. One of them voiced this grievance in the cabinet meeting, saying that this mishandling by the Punjab government had benefitted his political opponents in the city at his expense.

This is one reason why the prime minister has announced his government will not stop the opposition from doing its Lahore jalsa. Once bitten, twice shy.

But at best, these remain operational matters. PDM’s strategic framing is premised on the logic of jacking up the establishment’s cost of propping up the PTI government. For its part, PTI’s twin-menace of incompetence and inflation has softened the ground for street pressure that adds to the cost. Resignations — if they are indeed rendered — will aim to drag this cost beyond the sustainable level.

If the parliament becomes dysfunctional for all practical purposes, and the political system is hollowed out from the inside as a result of the departure of the entire opposition, the establishment will have little choice but to step back and consider all other options. At least, this is the logic inside the opposition alliance.

Beyond the official bravado, there is creeping concern within the Red Zone that PTI’s intransigence is beginning to deliver diminishing returns. This concern is also fuelled by the grudging recognition that the government is doing a poor job of managing its own legislators.

Last month the prime minister had appointed Amir Dogar as SAPM on Political Affairs to ‘manage’ the electables from Punjab and take care of their day-to-day issues. The reasoning was a sound one. But the results so far are not encouraging. One insider says the problem is that Dogar does not carry the political weight that is required for him to get work done through the political and administrative leadership of Punjab. The prime minister may have given Dogar the title but he has not given him the access to the PM office that can provide him the weight he needs to work through the official Punjab machinery.

Unhappy electables in Punjab can pose a very dangerous problem for a government under siege.

Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2020

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