It is the time for little big things. The little ones have been perforating the toxic air of Islamabad with rhythmic regularity this last fortnight. The littleness of these little things manifests itself in the insignificant outcomes they produce on the larger canvas strewn tight across the capital. The provocative but irrelevant political statement, the hyped but inconsequential parliamentary session, the loud but unsubstantive partisan attack — the ordinariness of these happenings is hard to disguise even when couched in the glare of media headlines. So humdrum. So monotonous.
Red Zone is echoing with the sound of a giant yawn.
In an event-driven political environment, this should be a cause for concern. The PDM is a damp squib, the Jahangir Tareen threat has subsided, the budget has been passed, the controversial electoral reforms bill has been held up, the much-touted cabinet reshuffle has been shelved, and the economy is chugging along at a manageable pace. It is one of those times — temporary as it might be — that has no big scandal, no sizzling controversy and no unfolding crisis. Life is — God forbid — almost normal.
Or is it?
Careful observers of the Red Zone are detecting two parallel and yet contradictory trends emerging from within the drabness of the political landscape. The first is the increasing confidence and assertiveness of Prime Minister Imran Khan; the second is the gradual meltdown of the so-called accountability process as leader after leader from the opposition gets relief from the courts. The logic engrained within these two trends is, seemingly, not adding up.
Don’t tell the PM that. He is talking the big talk — Kashmir, India, America, Afghanistan, — and swinging his rhetorical hammer like the mighty Thor. Hear his speeches, listen to his words, feel his tone, sense his oratorical swagger and you can tell the man has a grand scheme at hand. Standing atop the debris of broken promises and defective governance, he is envisioning a leap over and above this heap into the next level of political contestation where he towers over his opponents. He sees himself in the big league tackling bigger issues across an even bigger table. The idea of justice — Tehreek-i-Insaaf — brought him till here; now he is ready to spring forth from this platform on to a canvas that is much larger and more strategic. He exudes the confidence of a man who knows he is outgrowing this arena and is powered up for the more expansive one.
His confidantes explain by saying that the PM has overcome the growing pains of his debut performance and is now much more sure-footed. The governance problem of Punjab may weigh him down to some extent, but this anxiety is compensated by his government’s acknowledged success in combating Covid-19 through the NCOC platform. His confidence is also buoyed by the impact of the Ehsaas programme, and by the exciting dividends of the health card scheme, and by the boom in the textile and construction sectors, and of course, by the unexpectedly high growth rate followed by a well-received growth budget.
He is asserting himself in surprising places on surprising issues with surprising people. “Absolutely not” is not just a statement, it is an attitude that the PM is wearing on his sleeve. The harsh statements on Kashmir and India, the biting critique of the United States and its role in the region, and the categorical statements on denial of bases to Washington, these are just a few recent examples of his new-found resoluteness in areas that are usually left to be handled by the establishment.
The contrast with the opposition could not be sharper. With Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari shredding PML-N’s duality towards the establishment in a speech on Wednesday, and PML-N leaders pouring scorn on his words, the opposition is not even pretending any more that it has any common agenda. Part of this mutual criticism can be ascribed to the dictates of the electoral campaign in Azad Kashmir, but beyond that there is a genuine absence of consensus on what to do about Imran Khan. The opposition has, it seems, run out of options.
More ominously, it may also have run out of any big ideas. In the cut and thrust of tactical politicking, the opposition is struggling to define what it really wants — or what it genuinely stands for. For the contrast with Imran Khan to happen, something has to form on the other side of the coin. So far there are only vague patterns. What do you do to contrast with ‘selected’? What do you show to contrast with ‘incompetent’? What do you paint to reflect a contrast with ‘vengeful’? When the centre is safe, and Punjab is safe, and the allies are content, and the establishment is, well…the establishment is still having your back, then any wonder the PM can swagger across the parliamentary galleries without having to worry about a threat, any threat, from his rivals.
And that’s when the swagger can give one a misplaced sense of security. The littleness of little things may be showering down on the Red Zone like confetti, but underneath this hoopla of PTI’s hubris, PML-N leaders continue to walk free from NAB’s custody and into the sunlight of political vindication. Shehbaz Sharif, Rana Sanaullah, Saad Rafiq, Ahsan Iqbal, Shahid Abbasi, Miftah Ismail, Khawaja Asif and many others have successfully obtained bails and in the process torn holes in the accountability narrative so carefully nurtured by the PM. The courts in almost all cases have said the NAB had no solid evidence to back up its allegations against these politicians.
There is little littleness in the vindication of the PM’s biggest rivals at a time when optics will slowly start to give way to the harsh realities of constituency politics in the Punjab. There is a world out there, far away from hyperactive battlefields of twitter hashtags, Instagram memes and Facebook posts, which is thumping to the beat of conventional thana-katchery politics. The local bodies are groaning back to life after Supreme Court’s detailed judgement, and in the Punjab these bodies are dominated by the PML-N. Something is cooking below the radar level.
These little big things have a nasty habit of puncturing the hubris of power.
Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2021