From SS to JKT to Zulfi B: Has the great game begun?

Published May 20, 2021
This combo photo shows PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif (left), Jehangir Tareen (middle) and Zulfi Bukhari. — Photos AP/AFP/Gulf News
This combo photo shows PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif (left), Jehangir Tareen (middle) and Zulfi Bukhari. — Photos AP/AFP/Gulf News

Something is going down. Question is, what? Or who?

Events are cascading down the capital like a gushing waterfall, and an important one is expected to take place this coming Monday (more on this in a bit). When troubles come, they do so in combinations of three. For the beleaguered PTI government, the triple whammy of Sheh­baz Sharif, Jehangir Tareen and, yes of all the people, Zulfi Bokhari, is generating a perfect storm of paranoia, insecurity and, yes of all the things, encirclement. Inevit­ability comes armed with its own irony.

But wait. Are politics, and politicians, hyperventilating without a genuine cause?

PTI is new to this game of power and cannot be faulted for mistaking warning shots as the final blowing of the trumpet. As someone who has closely followed the rhythm of Red Zone politics for the past three decades, one can say the pattern this rhythm weaves for the government of the day from the time it takes office goes something like: (in this order): exuberance, confidence, arrogance, performance anxiety, institutional tension, instability, insecurity, conflict, and finally panic. PTI has ticked the first four items on this list and is probably on the fifth or sixth one. It needs to take a strategic pause before it slips to the seventh, eighth or ninth level.

If the siege mentality starts to dominate political calculus however, mistakes tend to happen. Jehangir Tareen’s formal formation of parliamentary blocs in the national and Punjab assemblies is a major escalation in this intra-PTI civil war. This was no easy decision for Tareen. He is not known to be an impetuous person. His decision-making is careful, prudent and well-thought out. Even his provocations are nuanced. This move is therefore not only a product of glacial planning, it also resembles a glacier in terms of what we see above the surface and what lies beneath it. There is a pattern.

It is the same pattern that may unveil itself this coming Monday. Inside the Red Zone, an important meeting is scheduled to take place in the afternoon. In the deepest bowels of the Zone, where the cabinet ministers and other powerful people live, a grand gathering of the opposition is taking place. Yes, it is the first serious attempt to re-weaponise the quasi-dormant alliance PDM. The leader of the opposition Shehbaz Sharif has taken a major initiative and invited all the members of the opposition in the parliament to lunch. Special invitations are being sent to the top leadership of the PPP as well as the ANP. Most are expected to attend. The healing has begun.

The same pattern is evidenced in a renewed attempt by the PML-N to pivot from antagonism to greater accommodation. Insiders believe there is a groundswell within the party to step back from confrontation and create a working relationship with the establishment.

“I can say with confidence,” claims a senior party leader, “that 99 per cent of PML-N parliamentarians want a breakthrough for a better relationship with the establishment.”

So has the party made a strategic decision in this regard? Not yet, say those who are privy to the discussions. But the winds are blowing in that direction and Shehbaz Sharif has his hand on the steering wheel, they say.

So what do Shehbaz Sharif and Jehangir Tareen know that Prime Minister Imran Khan does not? Well, this right here is where the plot thickens. With nearly forty parliamentarians with him, Tareen can pull the rug under the Usman Buzdar government in Punjab with one wag of his finger. He and his supporters may say all they want that they are part of the PTI and will remain so, but the very fact that formal parliamentary blocs have been announced — with a pack leader each in Islamabad and Lahore — belies these self-effacing claims. The vast majority among the JKT group are hardened constituency politicians and therefore not really beholden to the PTI ticket. In fact, they probably agree with a very senior member of the Punjab government who grudgingly admitted on Monday: “Whether we accept it or not, the hottest ticket today in Punjab is that of the PML-N.”

But is this hot ticket needed now? The change in Punjab can happen with the snap of a finger, but one politician in Punjab who has his nose very close to the ground believes that the establishment has not indicated a change in its priority yet. Could Tareen then have escalated matters without any assurances of support? Probably not, says this politician who has served as a parliamentarian both in the national and provincial assemblies. However, he believes that the “system” has not generated any winks or nods that could start pushing many ruling party constituency politicians in Punjab under a new umbrella.

In other words, Tareen may have indicated he can bend Punjab, but he is not saying if he wants to break it. A warning shot? Those in the Red Zone who have the ability to connect dots are beginning to read the pattern: people in position of power are not happy with others in lesser position of power and are piling up the pressure. A thousand cuts can lead to severe injuries — and more.

Which is why the PTI government is limping across the Rawalpindi Ring Road instead of driving on it at cruise control. The last thing a government with insecurity and performance anxiety needs is a mega scandal. Could PTI think it could be an exception to the rule of governance in Pakistan? The only thing that smells worse than the Ring Road scandal is the bumbling manner in which the government is handling it.

Editorial: The premier should leave no stone unturned to unearth the facts behind the Ring Road scandal

Zulfi Bokhari’s unceremonious sacking can cut both ways. The government is spinning it as an evidence of accountability, but there are whispers inside the Red Zone that his departure may have many more reasons. This does not inspire too much confidence in the workings inside the inner sanctum of Camelot given that Zulfi Bokhari was considered the closest among the close advisers and friends of the prime minister. What did he do to earn the ire of his boss? All that the Red Zone insiders say at this point is that tension had been building up for weeks.

Pakistani politics is evolving back into a familiar pattern. Shehbaz Sharif is stitching up differences and slowly building a coalition of the willing. He will create space for his party, and the opposition, at the PTI’s expense. Jehangir Tareen will flex his muscles through his two blocs and keep saying “boo” to the PTI leadership while galvanising institutional support in his typical low-profile, high-impact way. Zulfi Bokhari may denote one of the thousand cuts on PTI’s body and enable the opposition to draw more blood from the Ring Road scandal. And yet, in this game of power, the fatal blow may have to wait.

The clouds are darkening yonder and the faint rumble of thunder is echoing across the distant horizon.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2021

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