THERE’S a strange satisfaction that comes with seeing everyone chastised.
Something similar is unfolding across the political landscape as parties shuffle their feet, and their approach, in order to position themselves for the next general elections. These elections are still more than two years away but to most politicians they have started to glimmer across the horizon.
There’s another thing glimmering along with them: the elephant in the room.
This elephant has in fact always been in the room. Perhaps he constructed the room in the first place. Once made, he let others in and let them find the little space left unoccupied. When the space got a bit too cramped, some people tried to push the elephant out of the room. That’s when trouble started in that room. Many years and mishaps later, has the situation with the elephant and the room altered in any sense?
That’s the question which is defining the politics of PTI, PML-N, PPP and others as they wrangle for power in what is clearly a zero-sum game. The establishment as the proverbial elephant was supposed to have been subjected to decreased relevance if the flow of democratic evolution had gone in the desired direction. One can debate how and why this flow changed course — or was made to — and traversed back to the old beaten path, but at this point what is of far more importance is that the next general elections appear to be shaping up in the traditional mould. Yes, that means that the establishment will play a key role.
This elephant has in fact always been in the room. Perhaps he constructed the room in the first place.
But what kind of role? Well, depends who you ask. The PTI would want the establishment to be as supportive of it as it was in 2018; the PML-N would want the establishment to play a neutral role and provide a level playing field to the party; and the PPP would want the establishment to play any role in which the party can somehow find itself a key player in a hung parliament. But all three major political parties, and their leaders, have internalised the reality that — like it or hate it — the elephant will be in the room in 2023 and will determine through its acts and approach what happens in these elections.
This is far different from the ideal situation that all three parties parrot in their official statements. No, the establishment should have no role whatsoever in politics, they say; and yes, the establishment should stay confined to its constitutional role, they proclaim. That is the correct position to take on the record, but the fact is that each one of these three parties is now — two years prior to the scheduled elections — strategising how the establishment can play the role in 2023 that they want it to play. If there is one challenge facing these parties, it is this.
So how do they plan to overcome this challenge? The complexity of the task at hand is evidenced in the confusion and internal strife plaguing the PML-N nowadays. This fault line within the party — the so-called Nawaz and Shehbaz narrative — is nothing more than their differing approaches towards the elephant in the room. That’s it. Nawaz and Maryam believe they can push the elephant out of the room and pressure him to stay neutral in the 2023 elections, while Shehbaz says the elephant must be reasoned with so that he has reason enough to provide a level playing field and not block the PML-N’s return to power in the next term. Like it or not, the elephant is also inside the PML-N room.
The PTI fears the PML-N resolving its elephantine issues. Of course, the PTI will repeat till it turns blue in the face that it won fair and square in the 2018 elections. The fact, however, is that at the very minimum, the elephant facilitated the PTI’s ascent to power. That was when the PTI had everything going for it in terms of hopes, expectations, promises and the idealism that the party was ‘different’ from the rest. Not so this time. Stripped of these advantages, and weighed down by severe governance ailments, the PTI will be vulnerable. Which is why it would look for support for itself. It would also want to ensure that the PML-N stays on the wrong side of the elephant. Like it or not, the elephant is also inside the PTI room.
The PPP has already factored in the establishment as a key determinant of its electoral success in 2023. It knows it doesn’t have enough muscle to strike gold at the centre and reach for the ultimate prize. This it can only achieve under very specific conditions where it can win some crucial seats from south Punjab — as it used to do once upon a time — and bring its total tally in the National Assembly to a number which makes it ideal to lead a coalition. These are very well-defined objectives and they will require some facilitation from the elephant in the room. Like it or not, the elephant is therefore also in the PPP room.
What options does this leave for those people on the chessboard who want the establishment to have a lesser footprint in the next elections — less enough so that it cannot play a decisive role like it did in the 2018 elections? Those who have discussed these options over and over again believe that this can only be achieved by creating so much heat and noise inside the room that the elephant has no choice but to step outside and let the others slug it out on their own. It is a bold option, but a very risky one. Which is why those people who want to win at all cost in 2023 — especially in the PML-N — believe that it is a risk not worth taking.
And so the tale of the elephant pivots back to where it started. All parties are gradually accepting that they have to deal with the elephant. Question is: how does the elephant want to deal with them?
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2021