RED ZONE FILES: Sea of troubles

Published December 30, 2021
Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a meeting. — APP/File
Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a meeting. — APP/File

PTI is in a spot of bother. It may not accept it, but it sure looks it. From its vantage point, 2022 seems a steep mountain to climb. Five clear and present dangers stare the ruling party in the eye.

1- The darn mini-budget. Heads you win, tails I lose. Today the federal cabinet is set to meet specially to discuss, debate and probably approve the mini-budget — also called the money bill — that is required to be passed by the parliament if the government wants to re-enter the IMF programme. It was deferred in the last cabinet meeting because many ministers including most among the allied parties expressed reservations. They had good reason to. The bill if passed will unleash a new wave of devastating inflation and deliver political body blows to an already beleaguered government. There is restlessness among the PTI flock. What if they can’t muster the parliamentary numbers? A defeat of a money bill is considered a vote of no confidence in the leader of the house. Things could crumble like a pack of cards. Mortal thoughts haunt the treasury benches. Some have even nervously joked about the unmentionable: serving in the opposition. No one is laughing.

But not yet, the PM says. His body language is positive and upbeat, says a Red Zone insider who has been in his presence. He is living his own ghabrana nahi hai slogan, even though most others in his team are not. The technical knockout, were it to happen, will happen as soon as the bill is put to vote. That could be any day. Literally. Except that it may not. The opposition is talking the big talk but not walking it. The sense from inside the Red Zone is that the opposition also feels this is too soon to plunge the knife into the government’s belly, and twist it. The stars are not aligned. The talks are not done. The new arrangement is not stitched up. The government may yet live. But crippled. And cowering under the threat of the final blow. “Wait till March,” says an opposition leader. If the government survives the money bill, can it also survive its effects?

Red Zone Files: With its fortress breached, the PTI may now find itself fighting for its political survival

2- Dealing with those Noonies. Why don’t these guys just give up? A common lament nowadays is often heard among the ruling party circles. These PML-N people have been ousted, hounded, maligned, jailed and thrown under the juggernaut of the state’s wrath. And yet, here they are ready to make a comeback without having lost much in terms of elecatables, workers and supporters. Nawaz Sharif may or may not return but his party will. That’s the buzz in town. And that’s a buzz that is infuriating the party whose politics was based on the destruction of the Sharifs. PTI today is fighting not just against the PML-N but the very idea of the PML-N. It is an idea that has grown stronger in inverse proportion to the governance woes of the PTI. It’s hard to jail an idea, howsoever good or bad it might be. PTI spokespersons are shadow boxing. The threat has just become bigger and the habitual vitriol by the spokespersons a little irrelevant. How do you block the new narrative when you may be under threat of drowning in it?

3- Pining for friends with benefits. Where are they when you need them and their friendly phone calls? PTI is feeling lonesome. Friends are stepping back to mind to their own affairs and this has consequences. Red Zone insiders have confirmed that the institution that has facilitated PTI through good time and bad — as friends do — has now made a deliberate decision to let the PTI experiment with its own self-sufficiency. The Usman Buzdar government in the Punjab is also pulling on its woolies to protect itself from the frost replacing the traditional warmth. And yet, many within the ruling party are experiencing involuntary shivers. What if the bill came, and the phone calls did not? What if a no-trust came, and phone calls did not? How do you win back friends you have lost because of your own behaviour? The Red Zone wonders.

4- Banking on a big over. Can the PM hit it out of the park on the last ball? As the walls close in — metaphorically — the PM is said to be deliberating on options A-Z to find good ones. It’s a tough search. He knows he has an appointment to make at some point in the coming months. He also knows the appointment has consequences. The drastic sort. Many political people are also weighing all options in reference to the consequences of the appointment. You lay these options over each other and a common timeline comes into view. It does not extend beyond a few months. Tops. In a battle waged in cramped space and time, everything depends on who strikes first. And strikes hard. That big over will need to be really big. An inch makes the difference between crossing the boundary and getting caught. Who knows this better than the captain?

Read: Without a course correction, PTI's party may be over sooner than its leaders think

5- PTI vs. PTI — again. Stung by the drubbing in KP, the chairman of PTI threw out the constitution of PTI, the office-bearers of PTI and the entire party structure of PTI. Except, according to many PTI insiders, he can’t. Not according to the constitution of 2019 which he has thrown out. The chicken-and-egg dilemma is making an omelette out of intra-PTI frustrations. Many within the party were caught unawares when the chairman took the drastic steps and handed over party offices to sitting ministers. Those involved deeply in party affairs say the 2019 party constitution was made over a period of many months after deep and wide consultations with all key stakeholders. It was adopted and signed by the chairman. Nowhere in the constitution does it say that it can be discarded with a tweet. It is a legal issue and the ECP can take notice. Or someone from the party can go to court. In fact, someone just might. He also has a name. That name is weighing options, say Red Zone insiders. That is one more front that PTI did not need to open. But then what good is the PTI if it cannot fight the PTI?

Buckle up. 2022 is going to be turbulent. Especially if you’re in the ruling party.

To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?
(Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2021

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