RED ZONE FILES: What does the man in London know?

Published February 17, 2022
Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Minister and leader of PML-N gestures during a news conference in Islamabad, May 10, 2018. — Reuters/File
Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Minister and leader of PML-N gestures during a news conference in Islamabad, May 10, 2018. — Reuters/File

It is sound and fury signifying… something. As the hype surrounding the possibility of a vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan grows louder by the day, a question increasingly being asked inside the Red Zone is about the source of the opposition’s confidence. What do they know that the government does not?

The answer, as Bob Dylan said, is blowin’ in the wind.

Except, the lyrics of our political song are still being written as we speak. There is the flurry of activity we see, and then there is the flurry of activity behind this flurry of activity that is centred on assessing the numbers game and assessing the politics that will determine the assessment of the numbers game. Not surprising therefore that in an arena filled with players, only a handful know the real dynamics of the game at play.

It is a play fraught with risks. The opposition has bet it all on the no-confidence move. It cannot back down without losing face. And if it loses the vote, it will lose a lot more. The government for its part is staring into the eyes of an existential threat, realising that it does not hold all the cards that it did a few months back. And yet, it can take heart from the past. No-confidence moves have a history of failings. There are wheels within wheels that keep spinning even when they are not expected to. More so, when their spin is based less on fact and more on assessment.

That assessment, in today’s context, is whether the establishment has indeed step­ped back. Everyone inside the Red Zone is sniffing at the wind to catch a whiff of in­­t­e­­nt. Those with their ears to the ground can, at best, share tidbits that whet the appetite but don’t always sketch a fuller picture. Like for instance how an important parliamentarian from one of the government’s allied parties received a call during the se­­nate vote on the SBP bill, and then was told that this may be the last call he was getting.

Editorial: The establishment pivot

Such anecdotal evidence is mounting, say opposition insiders. It buoys them. But more than buoyancy, they need numbers that will hold under pressure. These numbers can come from the allies and from the disgruntled PTI parliamentarians. The op­­p­­­­osition has a strength of 164 in the Natio­nal Assembly and it needs 172 to de-seat PM Imran Khan. Eight is not a very large number, but ensuring one hundred per cent attendance of their own members and then adding the eight additional votes plus a handful more as a back-up — all this is a tall order.

But not as tall as it seems for at least one man. He is sitting in London and he believes he can win the vote. Why else would he alter his narrative, alter his position, and alter his strategy when he can easily wait another year. Nawaz Sharif knows something others do not. He is too experienced and too politically astute to opt for reckless gamble. If he has now given a green signal for a no-confidence against his nemesis, he has done so on the basis of what exactly?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.

The wind though has itself shifted course. It is a rather expansive shift. Soon after the 2013 elections an ‘Islamabad consensus’ was drawn up. According to it, the course of the country needed to be changed through a change of direction and a change of leadership. Imran Khan rode this consensus to power on the back of hopes that Pakistan’s governance paradigm was primed for change. After the 2018 elections, this grand consensus manifested itself through a hybrid system that sought to make a success of this model.

Then six months ago, the consensus ruptured. The model that was years in the making sagged under the weight of a government that continued to stand on wobbly legs. Can a new ‘Islamabad consensus’ be drawn up? The hectic political activity underway is illustrative of efforts to figure out the contours of such a consensus and all that it may entail. Some tidbits of information strewn across the Red Zone landscape hint at such a re-drawing.

For instance, there is a quiet attempt un­­derway to re-look at the fault lines opened up in the last grand consensus and stitch them back up. The change of guard at a key institution has triggered numerous major and minor reviews of such fault lines and the last few months have seen a gradual he­­a­­ling of wounds. The relationship betw­een various pillars of the state is on the mend.

The political fault lines however are harder to tackle. Which is why the game underway continues to have an uncertain outcome. But not for long. The Jahangir Tareen group holds a key that can unlock the door and unleash new numerical equations. The group has enough members to turn the tables on the government. But its leader knows that all is not always what it seems. He has bided his time with patience and strategic silence. Now however he has a decision on his hands that can flip the game. He’s a ‘big picture’ guy and he is looking very closely at the big picture. An in-house change is one detail on a larger canvas. The abstract art painted on this canvas will need to show what happens after the change, and how this fits into the new grand consensus, if such a consensus can in fact be reached.

It is all coming down to the wire. This month, next month, max. Expect the momentum to increase with each passing day. The man in London appears confident. His brother is acting on this confidence and is helping craft a new grand consensus. The needle has moved a distance from October last. But where will it finally settle?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2022

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