NUMBERS never lie. Till they do.
The PTI government is celebrating the passage of the mini-budget. Except, it is not. Some had billed the vote on the mini-budget as an existential issue for the government. However, the federal capital’s worst kept secret this month was that the opposition had quietly agreed to let the bill pass. All political stakeholders had been communicated that returning to the IMF fold was a strategic necessity at this point in time. None had disagreed. That left the matter of dealing with the politics around the bill. The opposition was happy to milk it for every last drop.
And so the saga unfolded rather expectedly. The opposition had a grand total of zero doubts about how to manipulate the situation in their favour. It was decided that they would paint this bill as the worst thing to happen to Pakistan’s citizens and the nation’s sovereignty. The bill had enough material to fulfil both these requirements. Inflation being the lightening rod that it is, the opposition happily took mighty swings with it at the vulnerable government knowing that little effective resistance would be on display. There wasn’t.
PTI has been struggling with its internal wrangling for years. But never did anyone point a finger at the leader himself. Till now.
Cabinet ministers have been struggling to convince citizens that this finance bill would not lead to further inflation. They have been laughed out of the room. The opposition know they have to do nothing but sit back and enjoy the backlash that will come the government’s way in the next few weeks.
Initially there was some discussion that the opposition would raise much hue and cry on the floor of the house, rub some inflationary salt on the government’s self-inflicted wounds, and then stage a walkout. The government would then have the bill passed and brace for impact. Later however, the opposition opted against the walkout and decided that voting against the bill, and registering its resistance to the passage numerically, would give them greater political dividends.
Their logic ran thus: by quietly agreeing to the request that this strategic legislation not be blocked, the opposition would manage to engage the engagers positively and heed the advice without any damage to their interests. This would also provide them the flexibility to pummel the government without fear of any political loss for losing the vote. A win-win for them.
That done, what now? Now the predictable will unfold like the expected. Once the law comes into effect, so will its inflationary push. Petrol prices are already expected to be hiked every month thereby further fuelling the spiralling rate of inflation. February will probably see the worst economic crunch so far. That’s when the opposition will start warming up the streets for its long march to Islamabad. The PDM has already announced that it would have a decisive discussion in its meeting on January 25 about bringing a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan. It may not announce a firm decision on that date — unless it has by then reason to believe that the government is genuinely alone — and is more likely to ramp up the pressure by committing to an outreach towards the government’s allies and its own disgruntled members.
All this activity would feed into the perception, as per the opposition, that the government is hurtling down a slippery slope with little chances of stopping the slide. Such a perception would further unhinge the allies and make the government’s own members more insecure about their own electoral prospects. The spat between Pervez Khattak and PM Imran on Thursday has already triggered a wave of uncertainty among many on the treasury benches. The fissures are now growing deeper. The opposition believes it is in a better position to exploit these fissures in the context of a possible in-house change in the National Assembly.
The Khattak episode is significant. First, it could not have happened at a worse time for the government because it now fans fears that the PTI is haemorrhaging from the inside due to both external and internal pressures. Second, it could not have come from a more ominous person. Khattak’s name has often been mentioned in terms of a replacement for Prime Minister Imran Khan. He is not really a challenger but if a list were compiled of those who could fit the bill of a challenger based on their political profile, his name would be right up there. He’s a smooth political operator with the gravitas that constituency electability and former chief ministership brings. The PM has also ensured that Khattak remains a disgruntled person. Under his five years as the chief minister of KP, PTI won an unprecedented second term. Khattak wanted to remain CM. Khan refused. As a consolation prize, Khattak wanted the interior ministry. Khan refused.
To add insult to injury, he gave Khattak the portfolio of defence which is more ceremonial in its effectiveness than anything else. With this baggage in tow, it was only a matter of time before Khattak retaliated. His retaliation therefore, when it came on Thursday, was dangerously volatile.
The volatility lay less in what he said, and more in who he said it to. The PTI is notorious for its infighting and grouping. It has been struggling with this internal wrangling for years. But never did anyone point a finger at the leader himself. Till now. Khattak therefore crossed a threshold by taking on Khan himself.
The episode itself may not amount to much, but it has added to the siege mentality slowly enveloping the ruling party. This will only intensify if the pressure mounts in the coming weeks both inside parliament, on the streets and in the bazaars. If the party then tastes another defeat in the next round of KP local government elections, and gets routed in the Punjab polls due shortly thereafter, it could be in serious trouble.
Now the PM finds himself in an unenviable position of having to pick the least worse among a list of bad options. Will he choose wisely?
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2022