RED ZONE FILES: KP rings the alarm bell

Published December 23, 2021
Citizens line up to cast their votes in the local government elections in KP on Sunday. — DawnNewsTV
Citizens line up to cast their votes in the local government elections in KP on Sunday. — DawnNewsTV

Events are moving fast. Random dots are forming a pattern. Whispers are getting louder — and footsteps closer. Inside the Red Zone, the air is a little colder, the nights a little longer, and the mood a little darker.

PTI’s humiliating defeat on its home ground is a shock that has sent the party high command reeling to the ropes. Here was this party boasting of a solid victory in the Punjab local government polls followed by a thumping triumph in the general elections. KP was taken for granted. This was IK territory. Unambiguously, unquestioningly and unabashedly IK territory. In this land he was the giant and his rivals puny Lilliputians scampering away in fear at the mention of his mandate. PTI had it under control. PTI had it all stitched up. And PTI was planning to leverage the local government strength to win big in the general elections. It was all so wonderful, so beautiful, so magical…

And then, Bam!

Just like that, KP body-slammed PTI into the hard ground of reality. The unthinkable had happened to the unbreakable and it was unbearable.

Editorial: A bloody nose from none other than JUI-F is a rude awakening for the PTI

Now the usual is combining with the predictable to paint the picture of a party putting up a brave face by ordering enquiries, summoning explanations and identifying scapegoats. But the smart ones in the party are also realising with a growing sense of alarm that what happens in KP may not stay in KP. When the centre of gravity is disturbed, everything is disturbed. With its fortress breached, the party may now find itself fighting for its political survival.

This may not necessarily mean the government’s days are numbered. The enemies are inside the gates but they haven’t breached the royal quarters — so to speak — or the armoury, for that matter. The government still has plenty of fight left in it, and it may yet keep the assailants at bay by retreating into its inner sanctum, but the fundamental nature of the battle has changed. From being the hunter, PTI is now the hunted.

Deep inside the Red Zone, the contours of new emerging realities are gradually coming into view. These are early days in this new phase in Pakistani politics but they appear more deliberate in their possible alteration of the status quo than in previous times. The trigger for this mini-upheaval — for the lack of a more appropriate word — is the controversy over the appointment of the new ISI DG. Cabinet ministers and government supporters had gone to great pains to underplay the episode and claimed all was well. It was, they said, a storm in a tea cup. It wasn’t. What most of these people missed, or deliberately chose to ignore, was how this controversy tore the tendons of the relationship and damaged the muscles that held the joints together. The limbs were not severed, but the internal damage had taken its toll. Is taking its toll. But not in any overt and orchestrated way. The coldness inside the Red Zone is less a result of a sudden gush of arctic air, and more of a gradual lessening of warmth due to the reconfiguration of the thermostat. The KP debacle is one manifestation of these changed realities. There were a host of reasons why PTI got such a drubbing on its home ground, but one key one — according to insiders — was the fact that the PTI did not get active support from places it used to get it. There was a “hands off” policy that let the political stakeholders slug it out on their own without any backing, assistance or facilitation.

“Imagine what will happen to the PTI in the Punjab local government polls,” remarked a gleeful PML-N parliamentarian from Lahore. “We are waiting for them.”

The “hands off” policy is now making its impact not just in KP but in Punjab and in Islamabad. Conversations with relevant officials and politicians have confirmed that this policy shift is under way. At the very senior level in the institution, decision-makers are stepping back from political entanglements to a fairly significant extent. The pendulum is slowly swinging back towards the centre. And those who need to read these signals are reading them like an unputdownable book.

One such man sits in London. Party insiders are now acknowledging quietly that he has softened his position, and that he is willing to engage in a dialogue that can lead to the end of the present National Assembly and fresh elections immediately thereafter. These are sensitive issues in critical times and there are multiple dialogues under way at multiple levels by multiple players. There is a hush within the opposition camp because they know what may be cooking. Former president Asif Zardari did utter some uncharacteristically provocative remarks that may suggest some hiccups in the process of stitching up a fresh political matrix, but according to many opposition sources, the process remains on track for now. And the timeline does not go beyond a few months.

The KP shocker has given this matrix fresh space. If the roots are coming loose, the branches can hold for only so long. The dire straits of the economy have now started to extract a tangible political cost. In Punjab, the ruling party legislators are getting restless and edgy. They can sniff the wind and smell the whiff of trouble. Some have started to flirt with the PML-N. January and February will weigh heavy around the PTI’s neck.

Which is why the PML-N is also on course to cool down its internal war of narratives and present a more unified public stance. Red Zone insiders believe that prospects of party president Shehbaz Sharif’s nomination as the prime ministerial candidate are becoming likelier by the day. “We need to strike when the iron is hot,” says a former PML-N minister. He believes the party is finally, even though belatedly, getting its act together to take advantage of the situation that has developed since October.

The month of March has started to figure in more and more conversations. Some ruling party legislators also feel that the moment of reckoning is drawing near. Few know when it will happen, and how it will happen but the situation is sliding towards some conclusion. Some very well-connected insiders believe big strategic decisions may have already been taken and now the operational details are being worked out.

And yet — to whip an already tired cliché — there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip. The PTI sits atop the official pyramid and the vast resources that come with it. Its top leadership has access to information that keeps it abreast of what is simmering around the Red Zone. It too is strategising its moves, knowing that time is finite and the clock is ticking. It is not sitting on its hands.

As the air gets colder, the nights longer and the mood darker, rivals know that time is upon them to unsheathe their swords and plunge into yet another year of political bloodletting.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2021



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