Faux confidence before the vote of confidence is not a rarity. But this time it’s hard to tell which side is exuding more of it.
Prime Minister Imran Khan couldn’t care less. Or so he would like us to believe. He’s jetted off to Moscow — and into the eye of a geo-political storm — without having too many worries about the impending attack from the opposition. There are his chief ministers and assorted ministers to hold the fort while he’s out there meeting Vladimir Putin. Troubles in Moscow and troubles in Islamabad can be dealt with simultaneously. Or so he would like us to believe.
His cabinet colleagues are putting up a brave face. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry is content mocking his opponents though he knows well that mocking is hardly a plan of action. Many other ministers in the cabinet are also displaying classic symptoms of faux confidence while having hilarious meltdowns against journalists.
Cold sweat is shimmering across their creased brows. They know that numbers don’t lie. Till they do. The figure of 178 that the PTI boasted on recent occasions can suddenly shear itself down below the precipice of 172. Danger lurks in Punjab where the chief minister has now been tasked with addressing the grievances of all those parliamentarians who could disturb these numbers. Not many are holding their breath for the CM’s success. Those among the aggrieved treasury members are less concerned about today and more about the future. They need to know where to invest their political capital in order to get healthy electoral dividends. The beleaguered PTI government can give them funds, but can it give them electoral success?
Unless, of course, they know that the ruling party can somehow heal its self-inflicted wounds and stitch them up with guarantees that may hold. There is something afoot here. PM Khan may yet have a card or two up his sleeve. The fence-sitters among his parliamentarians and allies are watching closely. Very closely. They need to sense which way the wind is blowing. A nod, a wink, a whisper — anything that might show which side of the fence has greener grass.
Faux confidence wears a thin veneer.
Which is why the opposition leaders too are slapping it on so thick. The hustle and bustle in Lahore is heavy on optics and symbolism. A meeting here, a dinner there — Shehbaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman are ramping up the hype that they’ve got the numbers. Or are real close to getting them. But they also know, if Red Zone insiders are to be believed, that dribbling your way into the ‘D’ doesn’t guarantee a goal.
Especially if it’s a moving goalpost. With so many parallel plots unfolding in this thrilling mini-series, it is often times hard to grasp the subtleties of the script. This is why quasi-confusion continues to mar the situation at hand. Part of this confusion is deliberate (keep them guessing and play a deceptive hand, says the logic) and part is a by-product of the organic ambiguity at play. Some key players are genuinely undecided. There is a third factor: the sheer complexity of the plot itself. What happens after the day it all happens? And the day after that? Navigating a way through this thicket of competing interests and agendas is proving to be quite a challenge.
The Red Zone is unsettled. Everyone is trying to read everyone else and coming up blank. Mostly. The only way to bring some clarity is to stack up various elements of this high drama in a neat pile. Talk to insiders and they provide a perspective that often goes contrary to what other insiders are peddling. But there are some commonalities. Here goes:
Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken charge. His faux confidence hides the fact that he realises the danger he is in. According to insiders, he is now leading from the front to galvanise efforts aimed at blocking the opposition’s impending assault. There is a realpolitik streak in his recent moves. He knows which factor needs to be addressed first, and how. Will it work? Ah, therein lies the rub.
Plan B is also in the works. But it entails huge risks. It is a closely guarded secret — for obvious reasons — but of one thing there is little doubt: there will be a season 2 of this series if the first one ends with a successful no confidence vote. Political war-gaming is at its peak. This is making many people inside the ruling party very nervous.
Speaker Asad Qaisar is a busy man. So is his staff. Laws, rules and regulations governing the running of the National Assembly (down to the minutest detail) will play a key role if and when the motion to de-seat the leader of the house is tabled. Combine this with the timing (long marches, OIC meeting, Pakistan Day parade with visiting dignitaries) and you get a sense of how crucial the Speaker’s state of play will be.
The faux confidence may have an escape hatchet. What if the numbers — and others — betray them? Insiders say they would rather step back from the move then proceed and lose. And how would they justify their U-turn? “Oh, ‘they’ weren’t neutral,” would be the justification. Live to fight another day?
Having formed a joint committee for the big move on Wednesday, the opposition now has gone into higher gear to home in on the specifics of the numbers game. Which is why negotiations with the Jahangir Tareen group are so crucial. He has his eye on the big picture beyond the current picture.
The big picture entails not just what set-up replaces the present one if the no confidence move succeeds, but what will that set-up be tasked to do under what timeline. The big picture also includes the timing of the general elections and the conduct of them in the context of the 2018 polls. This will require inter-institutional consensus — even of a rough kind — and the mode of guarantee to ensure its implementation. Oh, and of course, how to deal with a de-seated Imran Khan. And who will deal with him?
These are weighty matters marinated in multiple complexities. Which is why most people inside the Red Zone are reminding themselves of a grim reality: Numbers never lie. Except when they do.
Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2022