IN the times of a pandemic, one would have assumed politics would take a backseat, but this only held true for the first wave in Pakistan; back in 2020. Since then, the people, the politicians and the politics at large have not waited for anyone, not even for the various Covid variants to take a dip. The trend, set in the latter half of 2020, continued and 2021 proved to be no different. If the opposition was busy with its on-again-off-again internal dynamics in and outside parliament, the government continued its time-honoured tradition of making much of its one-page romance. They all seemed to be spinning their wheels through the year while continuing to put a spin on whatever they were doing to make it somehow look significant.
A short round of feverish gossip set off when Hafeez Sheikh lost the Senate run to Yusuf Reza Gilani, but it died down once Prime Minister Imran Khan secured the vote of confidence within days. The ‘camera-gate’ passed into oblivion faster than a Bollywood brat’s acting career; and the Bernstien-Woodward combination of Musadik Malik and Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar disappeared from public memory without even bringing down a peon in the Senate staff, let alone the chairman.
But the opposition’s disarray and moments of quiet were inspiration enough for the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) to go-it-alone and turn terminator within its own ranks. Hence, the Senate election confusion was followed by yet an upheaval in the finance ministry, and Shaukat Tarin replaced Sheikh, joining the government just days after having publicly blasted its “wrong policies”. Within months of what he called a growth-oriented budget, he was himself struggling.
It can safely be said that three years after the election, the government still does not know what to do with the economy any more than the Noonies know who is their prime ministerial candidate, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s television interviews notwithstanding.
Both the government and the opposition seemed to be spinning their wheels through the year while continuing to put a spin on whatever they were doing to make it somehow look significant.
But, as was the case in the first two years in power, PTI seemed to have never felt that mishandling the economic and energy sagas was excitement enough. The party’s dil is always in the maangay more mode. Or at least the premier’s does. Perhaps he still has not found anything to match the 1992 excitement! That being so, the government continued to goad the opposition, its allies and everyone else in between.
No wonder, then, that the allies were constantly complaining and so were the party people. If the latter did not do that openly, it was because they still had, and have, their eyes on development funds. As a result, parliament proceedings were as full of twists and turns as an Abbas-Mastan movie. Bills were presented abruptly, the quorum often did not meet, and the issue was used by the government and the opposition as a tactic to call it a day and no one was really sure when either side was going to open verbal fire of either ‘thieves’ and ‘puppets’. It was a script written daily by everyone and anyone, and with no regard for a beginning, a middle or an end.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) spent the second half of the year playing footsie in parliament amid screams and shouts outside about their bad past. But inside the assembly, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif were crooning this year Yeh Dosti, as BBZ and Maryam had been doing last year. However, their plans to stymie the government remained just that; plans.
Shor sharaba, walkouts and a few angry speeches; that was all that the opposition could boast of. Anything beyond the pale, such as the passage of a bill here and there or the Gilani senate victory, and the opposition was the first to crow over the powers that be having withdrawn their support. Indeed, they were the first to admit that the government’s success and failure was due to the establishment, and not the opposition’s doing. Such honesty has rarely been seen! The absurdity was unmistakable though as they were quick to claim credit as well despite insisting that they want the meddling to stop. The theatrics never ceased to entertain through the year.
But then the year had its quota of the tense variety of entertainment as well. Things came to a head in the second half of the year when the appointment of the new director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) could be put off no more. In the gossip afflicting Islamabad at the time, the transfer of Faiz Hameed from Aabpara had been in the works since 2020. More than once did the zarai tell the intrepid journalists of the capital that the summary had been moved only for it to not materialise. And each time there were whispers of the prime minister’s reluctance to want any change in that key post. Could a ‘puppet’ prime minister really be dictating such a matter to those who cannot be named? But in Pakistan, anything is possible. The fracas in the Senate in March had proven that when the government lost its majority only to recover it within days. Only in the world of Marquez had such things been possible before.
Hence, a government, which escaped unscathed from the case against Justice Qazi Fazi Isa and the revelations in the Pandora Papers, was in trouble as the summers were ending. In October, the DG ISI’s transfer was announced only for the prime minister to then refuse to agree to it and ask for interviews with the shortlisted candidates. But to the disappointment of the opposition, D-day was averted and the transfer took place as planned. Yet some were still glowing at the thought of the end of the one-page romance.
Having no ideas of any political advance on its own steam, the opposition was hoping the glass slipper would now fit their feet. But, unlike the step sisters, they didn’t even try to cut their toes off to slip into the shoe. But it would have been nice had the government stubbed its toe only on the Aabpara corner for the first or the last time across the year. The PTI in 2021 did not need it to be dark to repeatedly walk into a wall.
People were still trying to wrap their heads around the ISI saga when the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) emerged – yet again. Was it linked to the tattered ‘one page’ or was it inevitable due to the accord the government negotiators had signed with the firebrand protestors the last time around? It was hard to tell, but the roads were blocked, the protestors were angry, and no one knew if it was because of the French ambassador or their own chief’s incarceration.
The government, having ‘banned’ the party earlier in the year blew hot and hotter about the rule of law and the state’s writ and all things aggressive and principled ala the Hollywood leading man of the yesteryear action films. But then it robbed one and all of the action climax. Overnight negotiations were held and a secret agreement was signed which was yet to be made public as the year took it bow. Like much else in Pakistan, however, the pact became the worst kept secret as the arrested workers and leadership was released and the ban on the party was withdrawn.
Perhaps of all that happened during the year, aside from the economy, the handling of the TLP protest was the mess that stuck and earned the PTI much adverse comment. Even its obduracy over revealing the details of the gifts given to the prime minister by foreign heads did not make that much of an impact. There was unrest within the government, and the more liberal of its supporters were taken aback and few, if any, could explain why the hard talk overnight had morphed into a handshake.
The party’s own swing to the right also attracted considerable controversy. If this was an allegation levelled earlier because of some of the changes in the curriculum, it was followed by reports about draft laws being sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) for approval, and then by the establishment of the Rehmatul-lil-Alameen Authority (RAA) and its appointed head. But for the opposition, as with all political parties in the country, seemingly religious steps usually pass unnoticed. This is not a nest anyone wants to disturb. And not one made any attempt in 2021.
Next came the turmoil in Balochistan which was rocked by instability from within. For weeks at end, chief minister Jam Kamal clung on to his position while his own party legislators and the opposition joined hands to bring him down. And those who still remembered the end of the Noonie government in Quetta hoped yet again that this spelled the end of Khan. But Jam was replaced by Bizenjo, thanks to the help of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) which loved to hate the government in Islamabad, but could join hands with it in Quetta. No wonder, Khan droned on.
But it was the matter of the elections reform package that saw the government and the opposition truly at loggerheads. The government was hellbent upon introducing the electronics voting machines (EVMs), while the opposition was equally hellbent upon keeping them out; or so it seemed. All year round, the government went back and forth between reaching out to the opposition or bulldozing the law through, and one could never tell which strategy was in the works when. Such was the confusion that some opined that the only method to their madness was to keep attention diverted from the economic downslide.
And it sounded plausible because the government just could not convince anyone it had done its homework on the electoral reforms. It did not know how many machines would be needed for the general election and how they would be procured in time as it did not know the mode though which the overseas Pakistanis would be allowed to vote. It was just as vague as was Khan’s 2014 plan for civil disobedience.
No wonder then that eventually when the government got to the parliament on the day of the joint session and passed the law, no one knew for hours at end what had become law. Those on the treasury benches still didn’t by yearend – from Fawad Chaudhry to Shibli Faraz to the Attorney-General, everyone had a different take on the law passed; some saying the budget of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) would be conditional to the adoption of the EVMs, while others said the ECP had the power to decide. They were the proverbial blind men feeling up the elephant in a rather dark room.
Except for the discord with the opposition, nothing was clear about the EVMs or the next general election, or, for that matter, much else. Even the acknowledged debacle in the Khyber Pakhthukhwa (KP) Local Government (LG) elections at the fag end of the year led to nothing but more of the same done-to-death noises. This was politics in Pakistan in 2021 just as was the case in the preceding two years.