Defeat in the Senate, again

Published January 29, 2022
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

WERE it not for the opposition, PTI could have been in deep trouble.

A government being pummelled from all sides should not be exuding confidence, theoretically speaking, but such is the dichotomy of the political situation today that the ruling party is constantly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Friday witnessed yet another manifestation of this reality. Despite having the numbers, and apparently the momentum of assumed confidence, the opposition failed to block the passage of the State Bank of Pakistan bill in the Senate. By a thin margin of one vote, the government won the day — and possibly much more — by handing down yet another humiliating defeat to the opposition in the upper house.

Something like this was to be expected. After all, the opposition had the numbers even when it brought a no-confidence vote against Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani, and yes it still had the numbers when it contested the next election of the chairman against the same gentleman. Both times it was made to eat dirt. But that was the past, many opposition members were heard saying in recent weeks. Now the situation was different, and the wind in the government’s sails had mellowed down. In the Senate, these optimists argued, their numbers on paper could start reflecting their numbers on the floor. Or so they thought.

There is a strange equilibrium of imbalance in the federal capital with all stakeholders shadow-boxing in the hope of connecting a punch.

But Friday’s drubbing of the opposition should be seen in the larger context of the rapidly evolving situation in the country. The political chessboard is in a flux as both sides have started to make sweeping moves that speak of intensified conflict in the coming weeks. From the opposition’s side, the threat of back-to-back long marches on to the federal capital is slowly being actualised. There is a deliberate effort underway to mobilise the rank and file of their outfits in order to warm up the street and force the government to make a mistake.

From the government’s side, there is a sudden re-focus on projects that can deliver better governance to the voters. The PTI leadership has realised belatedly that the perception about its incompetence has taken firm root among the electorate and will extract a steep price in the next elections. It is a perception whose presence the party will never acknowledge publicly but the politically savvy men and women in government know that closer to elections, perceptions become far more potent than reality. This is one reason why Prime Minister Imran Khan has now aggressively started to personally launch various schemes and projects aimed at reversing the perception that his government does not know how to govern.

Red Zone Files: Why the PTI has failed to manage perceptions, even with an army of spokespersons

In Islamabad’s federal secretariat there is a greater urgency to get things done. The pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office is being ratcheted up by the day and cabinet members are also feeling the heat. The health card launch is being pushed with all the force at the government’s command on the basis of an internal assessment that this particular scheme could provide plenty of political dividends. In the coming days expect the PM and his team to promote this scheme with even greater gusto.

The flagship Ehsaas programme is also expected to get a potent dose of publicity with its final projects on the verge of being launched. On Thursday, the PM launched the criminal justice reform plan with an aim to facilitate citizens in their dealing with trial courts and the police. Law Minister Farogh Naseem and Parliamentary Secretary Maleeka Bokhari have played key roles in drafting this reform package and are expected to push it through the legislative process despite criticism from some in the legal fraternity.

It is too early to tell if such initiatives and their aggressive promotion can counter the harsh impact of inflation that continues to burn through the PTI’s political capital. This week finance minister Shaukat Tarin admitted that the rate of inflation is expected to rise even more in February. The government may be waking up to the magnitude of the crisis triggered by the economic situation, but has it left it too late?

The opposition thinks so. But has the opposition also left it too late to get its act together? It has been nearly six months since the PTI started to cut the branch it has been sitting on — and yet it continues to retain its place on the branch. The opposition’s defeat in the Senate on Friday reopened many old wounds. The absence of the leader of the opposition, Yousuf Raza Gilani, from the crucial vote has raised fresh questions about whether the opposition is on the same page with each other on the legislative field. Of course, this defeat also further cements the perception that the opposition too was taken on board about the importance of letting this legislation pass in order to fulfil the requirements of the IMF. These wheels within wheels continue to spin at a swift pace.

But in whose favour? Such is the complexity of the situation that both sides believe they have the wind at their back. Government officials are saying privately that they have been able to do significant amount of damage control with the establishment after the controversy over the DG ISI notification, and that they are now well placed to play out their full five-year innings. The opposition believes it still has an opportunity to push the numbers in its favour for an in-house change but for now it is still unsure when it would be in a position to risk such a move. There is therefore a strange equilibrium of imbalance in the federal capital with all stakeholders shadow-boxing in the hope of connecting a punch.

The Senate defeat will lead to greater introspection within the opposition camp and may push the PML-N and PPP into yet another round of awkwardness. This will provide temporary relief to the government in the parliamentary numbers game.

But as the PTI knows very well, the streets have their own dynamics. Time to buckle up and brace for impact.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter:****@fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2022

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