THERE is a lot packed in there. The stakes are high. So is the action. Someone will lose.
The calendar of events can be a jumbled mess when there’s no single planner. As the PTI, PML-N, PPP and JUI-F start warming up for the upcoming round of hostilities, they know full well there’s no chance of a draw. Such definitive binaries linked to outcomes from projected events makes planners nervous. They can also make them reckless. In a state like such, unforeseen errors happen. In today’s charged political environment, no contestant can afford errors, and none can avoid them. Something is going to go down.
Which is why the next 60 days are so important. The holy month of Ramazan starts in the first week of April. This provides a cut-off time for political hostilities that are about to break out. Ramazan will provide a time-out which will either break the momentum of this combat, or allow the combatants to replenish their strength for the next round.
But first, there’s the schedule itself. The PPP and PTI are mobilising their forces for the battle of the long marches later this month. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari will lead his march from Karachi in the last days of February and move north through Sindh into Punjab. PTI’s Sindh president and federal minister Ali Zaidi will gather his forces in Ghotki and march southwards towards Karachi in a move aimed at countering the PPP’s campaign against the PTI government. The details of these two events will start emerging in the next few days and provide the required fodder to the ever-spinning news cycle.
This field activity comes at a time when parliament is cooling down. The big excitement of the mini-budget is over, as is the scare that a move against the government in the two Houses was picking up steam. It is not. There is little indication that anything like this could rear its head again this month. With no major legislation in the offing, and no big controversy brewing inside the National Assembly and Senate — other than the usual acrimony and an occasional clash — the attention will be focused on the looming battle of the long marches. Get ready for plenty of ‘split-screen’ action on news channels.
Ramazan starts in the first week of April. This provides a cut-off time for political hostilities that are about to break out.
TV newsroom managers will have a tough time braving pressure from both sides. When parallel live news events take place, it requires a juggling act on the part of newsroom managers to decide who to cut live to, who to frame in a full screen or a split-screen, whose audio to use and whose to mute, when to cut away, oh and yes, for what reason. These are tough calls when the information ministry, Pemra, various advisers, party information secretaries and, of course, the channel owners are all constantly calling the newsroom heads. It becomes a messy and chaotic situation because political and media agendas all collide and the debris falls on the professionals handling the operations in TV newsrooms. Much of that will happen again when PPP and PTI embark on their long marches along the same route. What will make matters even more tough for the media is that both parties control governments, and therefore can use the official leverage that governments have when leaning on the media to give them better coverage.
Phase one of this battle of the long marches constitutes the preparatory noise that will start echoing much before the events themselves. Phase two will be the start of the marches and all the hype that comes along with very large numbers of people caravanning their way towards each other across the Sindh terrain. This phase will always carry the danger of a clash or some type of violence that can make the situation take an ugly turn. Remember, in Sindh the police will be battling the PTI. In Punjab, the police will be battling the PPP. Every action could have an equal and opposite reaction.
Phase three will begin when the PTI long march reaches Karachi and the PPP march reaches Islamabad. What will they do? Camp outside Bilawal House in Karachi and on D-Chowk in Islamabad? These parallel mega events will whip up passions and generate heat and light which will — as per their respective calculations — accrue political dividends for both parties by charging up their base. Phase four would be the final conclusion of these events and on what terms they finally end. There is so much that could go awry in these four phases.
While it’s walking away, the PDM will be walking in. The JUI-F- and PML-N-led alliance has announced March 23 as the day of its long march to Islamabad. Much remains shrouded in ambiguity about this march, including the intended or expected outcome. The PDM march will also have a short time-frame to do whatever it intends to do because it will have to conclude before the start of Ramazan in early April. This gives the PDM no more than 10 days to achieve whatever it aims to achieve. The government also knows it just has to manage these 10 days and then it will be all over. What will the PDM walk away with except plenty of media coverage? The events of these 60 days will set the tone for the next crucial 60 days. The holy month of Ramazan will give everyone a breather and then the local government elections will start a fresh round of contests.
The second round of KP polls, scheduled for March 27, may be postponed till after Ramazan due to weather concerns. If PTI loses the next round too on its home ground, and also in Punjab where its popularity has taken a battering, then its political position will be severely degraded despite it having survived the long marches. The road to the general elections will become even more painful for the ruling party.
The next 60 days, and the 60 after that, pack quite a punch. Buckle up.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2022