Fear in the air

Published March 1, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

FOR days now, the opposition has been extremely busy planning — behind closed doors — and making social calls, both private and public. The opposition was in the full glare of the media and cameras but there were few details available about what actually transpired — be it when Asif Zardari called on Shehbaz Sharif or when Maulana Fazlur Rehman met the PML-Q leaders or when Shehbaz Sharif (secretly) met Jahangir Tareen.

The hype is at fever pitch. But there are still some confused whispers about the light at the end of the tunnel.

Indeed, the excitement lasts only as long as too many questions aren’t being asked — questions about who is going to be the target of the vote of no-confidence, who will support the vote, and finally, what will follow later. There is far too much that is unclear to far too many and this does dissipate the excitement.

But despite the gaps between hype and reality, there is a simple reason why the opposition is winning the war of perceptions: the government seems rattled. Its reactions, this way and that, add credence to the sense that the opposition is not bumbling in the wilderness but is actually within reach of success. For what else can explain the government’s decision to not just hold jalsas starring Prime Minister Imran Khan but also launch a march in Sindh to counter the PPP?

The challenge for the government is more than just the numbers in parliament.

The scenes of the PTI’s Sindh leadership atop a container flashing alongside the Pipliyas en route to Islamabad make it difficult to believe the government ministers’ claim, at press conference after press conference, that the government has nothing to fear.

Just this Sunday, Sheikh Rashid held forth about how the government had nothing to fear because the opposition wasn’t on the same page but he established little except that he follows his PPP and PML-N predecessors in wasting the viewers’ day of chutti (holiday).

But this is the least of the government’s behaviour betraying a wee bit of panic. For when governments in Pakistan panic, they don’t make plans to win hearts and minds; instead, they flex their muscles and then they figure out how to silence their critics. However much Pakistan has changed over the years, some patterns are just part of our political DNA. And the PTI is in no mood to prove that it is any different.

So first came the decision to arrest an erstwhile ally for making ugly comments during a talk show. However, if his commentary had been in poor taste, the manner of his arrest was worse and turned him from a disagreeable analyst into a victim. A major miscalculation, if ever there was.

At least till now, if the government had gone after friends and foes, it was ostensibly because of corruption, which is the party’s unique selling point. If Imran Khan was said to be obsessed with corruption, it was because what else did he have to offer in politics? This was the PTI’s raison d’être and it had to follow through on it, especially as it hadn’t managed to do so on other promises. But the Mohsin Baig arrest was just petty politics or panic or both. And it brought back memories of the 1990s.

And then, it followed it up with changes to Peca, the cybercrime law — a law which it had opposed tooth and nail when Noon was in power and the PTI believed in all things right, including freedom of the press. But now, not only does it want to shut up all unwanted voices, it wants to do so in ways most authoritarian, throwing the offenders in jail, even before they are convicted.

In between came their bizarre celebration of Shehbaz Sharif’s impending indictment on Feb 18, a date which came and went as uneventfully as have many other such dates for the political Armageddon or complete victory, for one side or another.

It is hard not to put all this down to panic because the opposition has a trick (or an establishment) up its sleeve. It must, for what else would explain the government’s worries? October’s miscalculations have caused ripples and waves which the opposition is planning to ride to victory. This is what the parties say when asked about the spring in their step and the sherwani-ironing spree they are on.

And then the final bit which completes this scene of worry and fear is the news that Khan isn’t just playing nice with allies but that he has even reached out to Jahangir Tareen, who has now become the holy grail for government and opposition alike in the no-confidence game. Everyone is playing footsie in the hope that the flirtations will lead not to a permanent relationship but a transactional one, with a lose-lose only for those who are rebuffed.

If the opposition pushes ahead with its plans for a no-confidence move, chances are that the signs of panic will grow. Just last night, in a speech being advertised by excited PTI leaders since Sunday, the prime minister slashed the prices of petrol and electricity, adding that they would stay frozen till the budget. Such decisions are usually taken in an election year when governments know that the consequences will be the headache of those who come into power next. Does Khan know something we don’t?

The challenge for the government is more than just the numbers in parliament. The stories about the foreign funding case have begun trickling in again, about what was hidden and what is about to become public. And then there is the albatross — the increasing fuel prices. And caught in all of this, the government will be tempted to bulldoze more than just legislation in parliament.

It is still perhaps hard to say for sure what will eventually transpire. In Pakistan, politics is more uncertain than the variants in a pandemic. And developments, publicly and behind the scenes, are faster than the eye can see. However, in the battle of perceptions, panic is always visible and it is interpreted in only one way. But it is hard for those caught in the eye of the storm to understand this. And in the process, their reactions end up turning plans into reality.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2022

Opinion

Editorial

Crisis conference
Updated 04 Feb, 2023

Crisis conference

PTI's refusal to engage with the govt in such testing times will only be seen as sign of ideological bankruptcy.
Revenge politics
04 Feb, 2023

Revenge politics

A SENSE of déjà-vu prevails as cases pile up against PTI politicians, many of whom, along with their allies and...
Inappropriate remarks
04 Feb, 2023

Inappropriate remarks

OFFICIALS of the state, especially when representing the country at international forums, need to choose their words...
Delay in the offing?
Updated 03 Feb, 2023

Delay in the offing?

Govt must realise that political stability in the country cannot be achieved by extra-constitutional actions.
Divisions in PML-N
03 Feb, 2023

Divisions in PML-N

DISCORD and drama in PML-N ranks escalated this week when Shahid Khaqan Abbasi revealed he no longer holds a party...
Wikipedia ‘downgrade’
03 Feb, 2023

Wikipedia ‘downgrade’

ATTEMPTS to police the internet by states, often by giving opaque justifications for the action, are never a good...