What do you do when the expected happens unexpectedly? Many in the PML-N are asking each other such a question a day after the PPP disclosed Pakistan’s worst kept secret that it would contest the by-elections and the Senate polls in the coming weeks and months. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari — speaking at the conclusion of the party’s central executive committee meeting on Tuesday evening — said it as clearly as it could be said: his party would not leave any electoral contest uncontested. Translation: PPP would not be resigning from the assemblies any time soon.
This is not fine for the PML-N and JUI-F. If this complicates matters for the opposition alliance PDM that has claimed repeatedly that Imran Khan is on his way out, there’s more. Within the PML-N, and the JUI-F, there are people who remain uncomfortable with the hardline anti-establishment direction that their party leaders have chosen. They are also squeamish about resigning from the assemblies. PPP’s obvious inference of not agreeing to resign is music to their ears.
“We are actually feeling relieved,” says one such insider, adding: “Hopefully sanity will now prevail.”
Right. Ask Khawaja Asif about the prevalence of such sanity and he may have some choice words to share. The senior PML-N leader from Sialkot was arrested by NAB on Tuesday night, produced before an accountability court’s judge on Wednesday morning, and bundled off to Lahore the same day for what appears to be long days in captivity.
Khawaja Asif’s arrest too was unexpected in an expected way. He is not counted among the party hardliners and has consistently advocated a policy of realistic prudence towards the establishment. But he has remained in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cross hairs for a while now. This is evidenced by the frequent mentions that his name finds in the prime minister’s tirades against the opposition.
Red Zone insiders say Khawaja Asif’s key political opponent from Sialkot has the prime minister’s ear. As a long-time loyalist, Special Assistant on Youth Affairs Usman Dar is considered part of the prime minister’s core team. Khawaja Asif had defeated him in the polls which made the rivalry even more toxic. So what led to Khawaja Asif’s arrest? Better still, who led to the arrest? Khawaja Asif told journalists in court on Wednesday morning that it was the prime minister, and him alone, who was responsible for his arrest. Was he absolving the establishment of any blame? If so, it feeds into the growing perception that the ‘same page’ may not be as same as some might want to believe.
Not that it helps the hardliners in the PDM camp. On Wednesday evening Maryam Nawaz and Maulana Fazlur Rehman met to discuss the latest churn of expectedly unexpected events that may put a damper on their best laid plans. The original plans: local mobilisation of supporters through district rallies leading to a grand long march on Islamabad leading to a dharna leading to mass resignations leading to political turmoil leading to some unexpectedly expected turn of events leading to the fall of the Imran Khan government leading to a grand bargain between all stakeholders including the establishment leading to fresh free and fair elections leading to a victory for PDM parties.
The best laid plans — as the saying goes — have a nasty habit of going awry.
Is there a Plan B? The non-hardliners in PDM are whispering one: a media-hyped long march to Islamabad leading to a loud political spectacle that consumes plenty of TV oxygen leading to a big jalsa in the heart of the capital leading to various quasi-consequential announcements (resignations not included) leading to declaration of victory and going home to fight another battle another day.
Which is why the PTI people inside the Red Zone are grinning from ear to ear. They see the PPP doing what was expected of them; they see the PML-N tripping over Asif Zardari’s politics — again; they see Maulana Fazlur Rehman wounded by internal strife on the eve of his greatest battle; they see the establishment refusing to engage meaningfully with the PDM; and they see their impending Senate victory growing closer with each passing day. Wednesday’s political weather report for PTI read: “Sunny and breezy with chances of bliss”.
But can such bliss last? Under pressure, PML-N and JUI-F may resort to unexpected means. The fight may mutate into something different in the weeks ahead.
On Wednesday afternoon, under a welcome winter sun, Maryam Nawaz delivered a defiant speech at a party gathering in Islamabad’s Kashmir House. Azad Kashmir elections are some months away and the PML-N government in Muzaffarabad under Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider Khan is feeling the pressure of the party’s rout in Gilgit-Baltistan. If the trend holds, and AJK also votes for the ruling party in the centre, PML-N could be looking at even more pain: defeat in GB, defeat in AJK and defeat in Senate. This could leave PTI as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the political ring with the power to legislate at will. Just like PML-N of 1997. And it could make Imran Khan an overwhelming political powerhouse. Just like Nawaz Sharif in 1997.
In Pakistan, the unexpected is usually expected. Happy New Year.
Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2020