RED ZONE FILES: The Rambo reflex

Published January 20, 2022
A combination photo of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (L), Prime Minister Imran Khan (C) and PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif. — PPP Twitter/PMO/AFP
A combination photo of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (L), Prime Minister Imran Khan (C) and PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif. — PPP Twitter/PMO/AFP

Who will draw first blood? Tension is mounting inside the federal capital as events hurtle towards something, anything. Or nothing. Lack of action is a non-kinetic action in of itself, such is the complex web of affairs these days. Everyone who is anyone is gaming with his opponents while war-gaming with his allies. The multiplicity of outcomes is as infuriating as it is baffling.

So who holds the cards?

Ah, well here’s where the answer veers off from the traditional script. The positioning of major stakeholders after the re-positioning of the ‘same-page’ equation has the PDM and PPP sharpening their knives for a possible in-house change in the National As­­sembly. The PTI government is nonplus­sed. After a few tense weeks, the party is showing early signs of renewed confidence that it may yet survive the latest scare. Cabinet ministers are heard saying privately that the opposition has received no ‘signals’ and sans such signals the parliamentary numbers remain in favour of the government.

Why no signals? There’s a whole theory to back this particular theory in which selective facts can be arranged as per convenience. You can take your pick: Sharifs still not acceptable? Check. PPP doesn’t have enough strength to be a realistic option? Check. PTI is the embodiment of incompetence but still means well? Check. The experiment hasn’t run its course yet? Check. Why get sucked into another vortex of political experimentation when the first one is still unfolding? Check.

Editorial: Pakistan's power matrix continues to revolve around the establishment

The government is therefore bucking itself up by building up arguments that make it feel more secure at a time when nothing else is. The logic peddled is such: no signals will come, which means no in-house change will happen, which means the government will present the next budget and start its final year, which means it would be too late for any political change, which means Prime Minister Imran Khan will make the decision about the appointment of the army chief later this year, which means the governm­ent will complete its five-year term, which means elections will be on time in the last quarter of 2023, which means the governm­ent has enough time to (1) improve the economy (2) control inflation (3) get its act toge­ther for the election campaign (4) throw more opposition leaders in jail, and (5) ramp up the accountability mantra as a campaign slogan.

But there’s always that darn flip side. In this case, perhaps even two.

Imagine the following: Inflation reaches record levels in February and burns through PTI political capital — whatever is left of it — like a raging forest fire. Then PPP gets its long march show on the road by the end of February. It starts from Karachi and travelling through Sindh enters south Punjab, snakes its way through the fertile plains of central Punjab, hits the GT road and ambles its way towards Rawalpindi and Islamabad. This will be a made-to-order media spectacle, especially if the Usman Buzdar government tries to clamp down on it once it enters the province.

If the PPP is smart enough, and media-savvy enough, and politically slick enough, it would plan the event as a week-long media marathon. With jalsas in strategically imp­ortant locales that have convenient media access, and with top leaders available throughout the journey, the PPP would in all likelihood manage to have a caravan of journalists and TV satellite trucks (DSNGs) travel along with it. Done right, this would suck media oxygen away from Islamabad’s Red Zone and concentrate it around the long march cavalcade. If the PPP leadership knows the art of modern media management, it would ensure appropriate content generation during the day time to fill news bulletins and ensure ‘live cuts’ for channels, while itself producing enough video, audio and text content to flood social media timelines. For the evening it would work out live talk shows from its field locations with fresh material every day.

This would enable the PPP to snatch the narrative away from PTI and PDM and centre it around itself. A week of heavy media bombardment against the PTI government during peak inflation could inflict some serious damage on PM Imran Khan and his team.

Entering Islamabad will be a whole new project. The PPP would want the government to use heavy-handed tactics. “We plan to enter the Red Zone and camp at D-Chowk,” says a key PPP leader. If they do manage to gather many thousands at this strategic location for a few days of political hungama, jalsas, speeches and controlled defiance, the PPP would have generated quite a bit of hype at a time when the government would be at its most vulnerable.

What then?

Then the PDM will come marching in. And repeat the entire exercise (if it has the smarts and savvy). Thousands of charged people creating charged political activity in a charged environment against a weakened government can unleash unforeseen repercussions. And impact the foreseen ones. Like the second round of KP local government election scheduled around the same time. And like the Punjab local body election scheduled right after that.

It’s like placing nine fielders in catching position against the batsman and pressuring him to miscue a shot.

Here’s where Nawaz Sharif can bowl a doosra. His party’s calculation is that the time to strike is now. Not later in the year and not after the PM has made a key appointment, but now. For this to happen, Sharif may need to display the kind of flexibility that does not come naturally to him. He may have to make some commitments, and make some compromises, and also make some counter-offers that can get his party the space it needs for a comeback without acquiring so much space that it ruffles some already ruffled feathers. A delicate balancing act, this. Which is why many within the party itself remain unconvinced that Sharif will opt for this path.

But if he does, theoretically speaking, the power play behind closed doors would gel nicely with the one unfolding on the streets in the coming weeks. The combination pun­ches could send the government reeling to the ropes.

It is a battle of nerves. And of smarts. Gaming and war-gaming is reaching a crescendo as contestants aim to outwit opponents in this high-risk, high-reward conflict. Everyone is primed. Everyone is prepped.

Question is, who will draw first blood?

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2022

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