RED ZONE FILES: War & Peace: Latest trends in Pakistani politics

Published May 13, 2021
In this file photo, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend a PDM rally in Peshawar. — AFP/File
In this file photo, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend a PDM rally in Peshawar. — AFP/File

Some things are stirring inside the political cauldron. The matrix is quietly shape-shifting and the undercurrents are weaving fresh patterns that may become visible after Eidul Fitr. Here’s the updated state of the union:

1. The PTI government has declared fresh war on opposition leader and PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif. A series of actions denoting this war — blocking him from flying to London despite court permission, raking up the formally-closed Hudaibiya case, and considering placing him on the Exit Control List (ECL) — all these actions have left little doubt that the government has grown insecure since Shehbaz has re-taken charge of party affairs. This war is expected to heat up regardless of what happens in the Shehbaz case after Eid. If he is allowed to travel out, PTI plans to ratchet up the narrative on the Hudaibiya case since the trail in the other cases against him appears to have gone cold. If he is blocked from travelling through some legal means, including the ECL which a subcommittee of the cabinet recommended on Wednesday, the PTI plans to unleash a fresh round of investigations against him through the FIA in order to achieve two objectives: (a) Build a new narrative against him that it can harp on as the old one loses steam; (b) Keep him under pressure with an eye on a possible arrest in order to break the political momentum that he is gradually building up since being granted bail by the Lahore High Court (LHC).

2. PTI has also declared war on the opposition on the electoral reforms front. This is an after-thought. According to Red Zone insiders, a loose consensus was developing within the party leadership that the government needed to bring down the political temperature a notch after the failure of the PDM campaign. Conventional wisdom therefore coalesced around focusing on actual governance deliverables and building a perception that the government was now serious about, yes, governing. The feeling did not last long. The government got fixated on the two-point electoral reform agenda — Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and enfranchisement of overseas Pakistanis — while the opposition refused to be pinned down on this limited agenda alone. With the issuance of the presidential ordinance on these two reforms, the government has reverted to war. Whichever way one looks at it, this path to electoral reform is unlikely to end well.

3. The PML-N is in the process of giving peace a chance. There is an internal metamorphosis under way inside the party but it is yet too early to tell which way it will end up shaping the party’s policy outlook in the short to medium term. With the deflation of the PDM and the return of Shehbaz Sharif, the pragmatic school of thought in the party has started to gradually assert itself. Party insiders now admit that many voices which had gone relatively quiet — including those of many senior leaders — since the party put war paint on its face, have started to get louder. These voices are now arguing for a more ‘realistic’ approach towards the establishment. They believe that the party leadership must attempt to reduce the trust deficit with the establishment so that it can have a real shot at returning to power in the next elections.

4. For PML-N, waging peace with the establishment after taking matters to a boiling point is easier said than done. Even though pragmatists are beginning to flex their muscles, it is far from clear that Mian Nawaz Sharif is ready and willing to tone down his narrative. From the establishment’s side there may be a slight warming to the PML-N — or perhaps more appropriately, a gentle reduction in coldness — but there is no substantive indication that it has begun to consider the party as a viable alternative to the PTI — yet. It is a long journey, this mending of fences with the establishment, and the PML-N can only undertake it once there is a consensus at the top on this strategy. It has time if the elections are held in 2023; not so much if the prime minister decides to advance the date.

5. After having declared war against itself, the opposition alliance PDM is quietly talking peace. It may have lost most of its efficacy after its failure to agree on resigning from the assemblies and launching a long march to Islamabad, but the war of words between the PML-N and PPP is expected to draw down after Eid. PDM sources say the alliance may give itself another chance and focus on a less ambitious agenda. A meeting is expected later in the month and the parties will attempt to find some common ground that can allow it to function as a cohesive group in parliament and block the government’s legislative agenda.

6. The Punjab battlefield is simmering again. As the budget draws near, various stakeholders are sharpening their knives and licking their lips in anticipation. The PPP has made no secret of the fact that it is willing to help bring about an in-house change with the PML-N in the lead to replace Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. Insiders say some pragmatists in the PML-N were open to discussing this option some weeks back but the top leadership brushed the offer off because it did not gel with Nawaz Sharif’s narrative of staying away from this ‘hybrid’ system. With the pragmatists gaining strength, some in the party are taking another look at the proposal and the numbers it entails. The successive defeat of the PTI candidates in by-elections has also added fuel to the numbers game in Punjab. Opposition smells blood.

7. The Jahangir Tareen brigade is vacillating between war and peace. Last month it weaponised its rhetoric against its own party for maximum effect, then disarmed its weaponry at the meeting with the prime minister, and since then is quiet. The group has the numbers, which means it has the political gun that can blast holes in the PTI coalition in Punjab, but does it have the will to pull the trigger? The prime minister has not softened his tone against Tareen, and the FIA team investigating his case has not been changed as demanded by the group. If the JKT brigade needs to flex its muscles, it has time till the budget.

8. There is relative peace within the federal cabinet even though undercurrents of war continue to flow menacingly. The expected large-scale reshuffle has not happened yet and many ministers are breathing easy that they may survive the scare. Sources say the prime minister is keeping his cards really close to his chest in reference to changing his batting order. Those expecting a seat on the big table continue to wait impatiently.

9. There is cold peace between the establishment and the government on the issue of replacing some key personnel. The establishment is said to have indicated that three extremely high-level officials of the PTI governments were not performing well. The government, according to Red Zone insiders, has politely declined to replace them. Cold peace is the absence of war. It is still cold.

10. The establishment is banking on peace with India even though the prime minister has said equivocally there will be no talks with New Delhi till it reverses the actions of August 5, 2019. Some observers believe this represents a chasm between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. A closer reading of the situation reveals this is not so. Nowhere did a senior official say in the ‘famous’ briefing that Pakistan was ready to initiate a dialogue with India regardless of the August 5 actions. Talks about talks are not considered formal talks and therefore the position that the senior official referred to within the broader context of reducing tensions with India does not differ with what the prime minister has said.

The state of the union clearly needs work.

Eid Mubarak.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2021

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