In a swiftly changing scenario after the opposition’s filing of the vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan, numerous possible political permutations are cropping up in Islamabad and Lahore simultaneously. There is more to the daily happenings that meet the eye. As Julius Caesar said in January 49BC on crossing the Rubicon, Alea iacta est (Die is cast).
At the heart of it all is the opposition’s confidence that its game plan is fail-proof — or at least as close to it as is possible within the treacherous political domain. The formal announcement by Shehbaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman on Tuesday was a culmination of a lengthy and often frustrating process that included assurances, promises, deals, negotiations, compromises sprinkled with a healthy dose of cautious optimism. During this entire process a tight lid was kept on information and whatever surfaced was either incomplete tidbits or out of context nuggets. The big picture was confined only to a handful of people.
Deep background conversations with Red Zone insiders have however revealed some contours of the ‘big picture’ and how it may unfold in the coming days if all works according to the plan. That is indeed a big ‘if’ because it takes two to tango, as the cliché goes, and the government is yet to make its move. This move — or moves — though, have to be seen within the larger context of where the politics of Pakistan appears to be headed in the next few weeks and months. The vote of no confidence in this respect is one cog in a larger wheel of fortune that has started to turn slowly but oh ever so deliberately.
The movement of the wheel has been powered by two factors that have been in play for quite a while. The first is the PM’s mismanagement of Punjab. The second is his mismanagement of the establishment. Taken together, these two have spawned dynamics that have now taken on a quasi-organic trajectory. The events leading to the actual vote in the National Assembly between now and the end of the month will either reinforce this strategic re-mapping of the political landscape, or it will — if the vote fails — explode into something uncertain, unplanned and unpredictable.
For now however, the predictable is unfolding as planned. The deep grievances emanating from Punjab were bound to manifest themselves in an internal rupture for the ruling party. Time and again, month after month, PM’s friends, allies and well-wishers had asked him, urged him, even begged him, to change the chief minister and fix the gnawing political and governance crisis growing worse by the hour in Punjab. To no avail. Had he taken action at the right time, there would possibly have been no JKT group. Or even if it did exist, it would have struggled to acquire the power and heft it wields today. This empowered, strong and aggressive group is a direct product of the PTI leadership’s failure to take the right decisions at the right time. Those who think giving this group development funds or high positions now will neutralize it are missing the forest for the trees.
They are also missing the larger pattern these trees are painting. The famed neutrality of the umpire did not materialise out of thin air. It percolated down, drop by drop, with each mis-coordination, mis-cooperation and mis-communication between the twin cities. This was absolutely avoidable. But hubris, when it starts to weigh down an individual, can extract a steep cost. Isolated strokes don’t paint the full picture unless commandeered by an artistic hand.
But often times all the hand has to do is to do nothing. The act of nothingness in today’s context is read by many on both sides of the aisle as a prompt to let the cookie fall where it may. Thus started the opposition’s hunt to recruit PTI MNAs who were either angry, or disillusioned, or both. Their anger and disillusionment had remained bottled up inside them for fear of pressure from powerful quarters. They had no choice. Till they did. Or think they do. The last few weeks — perhaps even months — have seen them slowly testing their own free will with the opposition all the while keeping one eye on their phones. When the phones did not ring, they were emboldened enough to take a bite out of the forbidden fruit.
And it tasted sweet. Ah the scent of a victorious ticket in the Punjab. This was their choice to make. But not really. They chose because others chose not to obstruct their choice. The momentum began to build. This is when the key opposition leaders realised that PM Khan had a chink in his armour and they could shoot the arrow right through it. The man in London too sensed that the changing dynamics required him to soften his position and embrace flexibility like a reluctant lover.
So what of the allies? The PML-Q played hard-to-get and got blindsided by the JKT group. The MQM received the PM at its headquarters in Karachi and offered him tea without sweetening it with open support. The BAP is mysteriously quiet and the GDA is sulking in the corner. But here’s the thing: if there is a pattern unfolding, how can the allies not embellish it with their presence? A dilemma, if ever there was one.
Except, not really. Red Zone insiders confide that MQM has had detailed consultations with the opposition far far away from prying eyes. The party has its ear to the ground. The BAP has also engaged with the opposition in what is described as a ‘deeply engaging way’. The PML-Q’s Chaudhry Shujaat has met Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Asif Zardari in Islamabad in the last twenty four hours and the party is poised to become more nimble in its posturing. The allies know there is a process underway and it is powered by decisions that are far above their pay grade.
So is the PTI government doomed? Not yet. The organic nature of the process and its politically-fuelled momentum means that the ruling party has the opportunity to respond with organic force that comes loaded with the power of the government. If the PTI can break the shackles of its own dependence on others, and if it can unleash political savviness that it has failed to display in the last two years, it can still overturn the tide that is rising ominously with each passing hour.
It is mission difficult, Mr Khan, but not mission impossible.
Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2022