The Pakistan Super League and Pakistan Muslim League are both setting Lahore on fire. All the action and all the suspense is happening right here and right now, for stakes that are getting higher and higher as the grand finale approaches.

But while cricket players are competing on a set schedule, political players are not. If the MQM-PML-N meeting set hearts racing, wait till the real sizzler. “Yes we believe Shehbaz (Sharif) sahib will be coming to meet our leaders soon,” confirms a PML-Q insider. The meeting between colleagues-turned-rivals is expected in the next few days in Lahore. Inside the Red Zone many are breaking into cold sweat. The Chaudhrys leading PML-Q have remained steadfast allies of PTI so far, but have not desisted from raking the ruling party over coals when deemed necessary. Which has been pretty often.

But to meet Shehbaz Sharif in a formal setting? Now that’s taking the optics to a new level. And yet, they are taking due care with the words they utter lest their thoughts become known before time. “We are political people and our doors are always open,” the PML-Q insider says. Is he expecting any kind of breakthrough with the Sharifs? “Let’s see what he has to say,” the insider remarks in reference to Shehbaz’s visit.

Read: Political expediency brings adversaries to Lahore

A routine meeting this is not, just as routine times these are not. The political pot is boiling, but not spilling over. As president of his party, Shehbaz is now steering efforts to meld the opposition parties into a potent force which can hound the PTI out of power. In Asif Zardari he has found a willing partner. Or at least that’s what the optics are saying. “These optics are important,” remarks a PPP leader who has a ringside view to these fresh political games. “We needed to break the ice with PML-N and that has been done,” the insider says and argues that the meeting between Asif Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Shehbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz has enabled the two sides to start working together again. Do they have something solid with them? Not yet perhaps, concedes the PPP leader but maintains that the working relationship is almost repaired.

The PML-N people agree to an extent. “If ‘they’ are neutral, the game is on,” says a senior party member who is playing a key role in the behind-the-scenes activity. He is, of course, referring to the role of the establishment. Others within the party are pinning their hopes on the fact that their leadership has finally become active. The major change that is said to have taken place in recent days is the greater level of flexibility being displayed by Nawaz Sharif. According to sources within the party, he has given his younger brother a green signal to stitch together the numbers, if possible, to bring the PTI house down. The flurry of activity on display in Model Town is a direct result of this change.

The change is heavy on intent. Not so much on substance, though. The government’s coalition partners are edgy, that is for sure, but will this edginess lead to something more than a subtle pressure for greater benefits? MQM has travelled to Model Town in the full glare of cameras and continues to drop ominous type of hints against the ruling party. But it has done nothing so far that might suggest that it is reviewing its options. PML-Q may break bread with Shehbaz but is not ready to break ranks with Imran. Yet. BAP too is grumbling that it does not have enough cabinet posts, but will it jump ship only to land in the deep blue waters of uncertainty?

“This state of uncertainty is unsustainable,” says a Red Zone insider. The reality, in all likelihood, is that everyone is groping in the dark. The government is weaker than it looks. As is the opposition. The gung-ho attitudes fuelling defiant statements and triumphant prediction are a weak attempt to hide the fact that all political players are unsure of where they are headed. It is that kind of a time in the Red Zone.

Read: The political battle in Islamabad is heating up. Who will draw first blood?

At such a time, connecting dots is not without risks. PTI’s Faisal Vawda has been knocked out by the election commission, but should that be read into a pattern? His case was weak, and the verdict does not come as a surprise. And yet opponents cannot resist the temptation to borrow Imran Khan’s vocabulary and use it back at him. “One more #PTI wicket down,” tweets Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. You can see him smiling mischievously as he types these words.

And yet, leaders like him know full well that while the dots are there, the pattern is not. So everyone is dancing around the bonfire and borrowing whatever heat they can.

For the government though, there’s work to be done. Bruised and battered by the brickbats of misgovernance, the PTI leadership is attempting to push back and show that it can do good work. One such work will be on display this Thursday morning. Prime Minister Imran Khan is presiding over a ceremony to recognise and reward federal ministries that have performed well. The performance review that has led to such evaluation is a complex yet effective system designed by a youthful team under the guidance of Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Establishment Arbab Shahzad. Through this system, the performance of all the 41 federal ministries has been assessed both quantitatively and qualitatively and graded on the basis of the percentage of targets they have completed against the ones they had set for themselves.

The boring and tedious work of government appears to have suddenly become competitive. This morning SAPM Arbab Shahzad will announce the names of the top ten performers among these 41 ministries. These ten will be ranked in order of their percentage number they have won. Red Zone insiders say five of these ten have earned more than 90 per cent completion marks while the other five have more than 85pc. But there is more to the recognition than just a pat on the back by the PM. The team running this project has succeeded in getting money from the finance ministry to reward these top ten performers. It is no ordinary reward. The five ministries that have earned more than 90pc grade will today witness a deluge of smiles in their offices. For good reason. Every single person working in these ministries will get three extra salaries. The employees of the other five ministries who scored between 80-90pc will receive two extra salaries.

This is a pretty nice sweetener for federal government employees who usually complain that they are paid less than their colleagues working in provincial governments. The amount to be disbursed among the staff of these ten ministries today totals Rs280 million. So who are the lucky winners?

The list is being kept a secret like the Oscar awards. The winners and losers will find out only when Arbab Shahzad makes the announcement in the presence of PM Imran Khan. Red Zone insiders however have got a whiff of some details. For instance, among these top ten ministries, two are led by non-elected ministers. Of the eight others, one ministry is led by a senator while the seven others are run by ministers who are members of the National Assembly. Two of these ten cabinet members are women.

The lowest scoring ten ministries are in for a bit of trouble. A list of reasons for their poor performance has been drawn up and will be shared with the PM, who will then summon the ministers leading these ministries. They should expect a dressing down.

The system works like this: every ministry is asked to draw up a list of initiatives it wants to achieve in the next six months. The secretary of the ministry and his team are then invited to a meeting at the PM secretariat where the SAPM Establishment and his team go over the list of these initiatives after documenting them, and then following up on the progress. This progress is quantified by a system of marks. At a recent meeting with the interior ministry team — where Dawn had special access — the SAPM asked why CDA had committed to building six parking plazas and not done so. The chairman CDA had to explain that the initial target of six plazas was not accurate.

At another such meeting with the FBR, its chairman complained that one particular project had become a ‘migraine’ for the organisation. But since it’s a big project, he was told to bring it back on track. Similarly, the establishment of the land port authority was also behind schedule. The FBR chairman was told to fast-track it. The ministries also have to document which of their work is ‘dependent’ on another ministry and then that ministry is penalised if it is delaying work.

It is a good system and today’s reward ceremony may just provide the incentive needed by federal ministries to compete with each other on performance. Arbab Shahzad and his team of youngsters from the private sector have done a creditable job of getting this system up and running.

As February races towards the season of long marches, politics and governance both are revving up nice and proper. Match is on — inside the stadium, and outside of it.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2022

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