RED ZONE FILES: The stabbing season

Published March 11, 2021
Five Senators separate the government from the opposition. — Photos AFP/File
Five Senators separate the government from the opposition. — Photos AFP/File

It was March 15. It was the Senate. It was Rome. It was 44 BC. There was much stabbing.

It is March 12. It is the Senate. It is Islamabad. It is 2021. Will there be proverbial stabbing?

Five Senators separate the government from the opposition. With 52 votes in hand, the opposition candidate Yousuf Raza Gilani is confident of his victory. As a student of history, he should not be. With 47 votes in hand, the government’s candidate Sadiq Sanjrani is equally confident of his victory. He comes armed with official largesse and powerful backers. As a student of politics, he should not be. Senators have a long history of cloaking daggers in their sleeves and plunging them in unsuspecting backs.

Beware the ides of March.

The PTI government is beware. The jolt of Gilani’s victory has shaken it to the core. Ruling parliamentarians acknowledge they had not foreseen this outcome. Even on the day of the election — knowing well the momentum of the Gilani campaign and the release of videos — PTI officials were relaxed about their numbers. The first indication of trouble, genuine trouble, was when Zain Qureshi, son of Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, asked for a recount. He was the designated polling agent for Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh and when he told his party colleagues gathered around the hall that the first count had shown Shaikh’s numbers to be less, he was greeted by utter disbelief.

The party tried to put up a brave face. It failed. The defeat had rattled them to the bones. So they did what anyone in their position under such crushing stress would do: they rushed to their leader in Banigala. Many were ashen faced. But according to Red Zone insiders who had a ringside view of the happenings of the day, the leader was “chilled”. Before the shaken and stirred PTI parliamentarians could vent their stress on to the prime minister, and before they could start pointing fingers at this, that and the other for the humiliating drubbing they had received at the hands of the PDM, the prime minister told them to relax. He told them he would take a vote of confidence, and that was that. So instead of cribbing, stressing and freaking out, he told them to go speak to the media and tell them what he had decided.

Read: The entire fracas over the Senate polls has highlighted so much more than the vote and its secrecy

That’s how, according to insiders, the crestfallen lot trooped across to the Press Information Department and held a press conference. However, they forgot to hide the panic on their faces. Later on their leader remarked, as per a source, on their sullen faces and also asked why the entire lot had to sit on the stage — including back rows — and make such a spectacle. The only person in the government who took this defeat in his stride was the prime minister.

Sanjrani’s defeat may be harder to take in one’s stride. Which is why strings are being pulled in every which way possible by every quarter. In fact, the nomination of Sanjrani itself is an indication of the ‘combined’ effort that is being put into this election. There was a long line of PTI candidates vying for the post of the chairman and the prime minister had not made up his mind. But insiders in the ruling coalition confide that Gilani’s victory changed all calculations.

The old saying goes that nothing clears the mind more than staring into the barrel of a gun. That’s what happened with PTI. The day after the shock defeat, the party leadership brushed aside all other aspirants and announced without delay that Sanjrani was their candidate. The party had conceded it needed help.

If Sanjrani wins tomorrow, the government will breathe easier. But just a bit. Repulsing one attack does not end the siege of the fortress. There is increasing realisation within the ruling party that post-vote of confidence, things have to change. The threat matrix for the government weaves itself into an ominous list:

(1) Threat from internal dissension reflected in Gilani victory; (2) Threat from unstable numbers in the Senate and its adverse impact on legislation; (3) Threat from the possible consequences of PDM’s long march; (4) Threat from mismanaging an increasingly fragile relationship with the establishment; (5) Threat from the governance fiasco in Punjab; (6) Threat from PDM’s moves to overthrow the government in Punjab; (7) Threat from internal rivalry and deeper factionalisation if a replacement to Chief Minister Usman Buzdar is selected; (8) Threat of this impacting the terse and transactional relationship with the PML-Q; (9) Threat from an increasingly hostile electorate that is getting no relief from inflation and high cost of living; (10) Threat from a resurgent PML-N in Punjab and a depleting political capital for PTI in the province that will determine the winner in the next election.

The ten-point threat matrix will go red hot if Sanjrani loses tomorrow. If he wins, the matrix won’t go away; it will only turn from red to orange. This is why a quiet debate has already sprouted within ruling party circles about how “IK-1” (2018-2021) must be different from “IK-2” (2021-2023). One indication of this would be the cabinet reshuffle that is expected soon after new Senators are sworn in and the election of the chairman and deputy chairman is done.

The reshuffle will reflect Prime Minister Imran Khan’s new direction for the rest of his term. There are some bright and enthusiastic people waiting in the ranks within the ruling coalition. They are hopeful that they can help steer their party safely till 2023. But they will only get a seat on the high table if the prime minister is ready and willing to jettison the “excess baggage” that he has been lugging along in the cabinet — and perhaps also in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The government truly is at a crossroads.

In Rome on March 15, 44 BC, 40 Senators ‘deposed’ the leader. In Islamabad on March 12, 2021, 50 senators can depose the chairman. Somewhere a Brutus is quietly sharpening his dagger. Question is, which back will he plunge it in tomorrow.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2021

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