The Punjab question

Published July 5, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

A COALITION government, uncertain number, courts proceedings about dissenters, Punjab and all things in between — the PMLN-led government seems as comfortable as the proverbial film character hanging on to a branch over the mountain’s edge. Or for those who still remember it, the coach teetering over the cliff, at the end of the original Italian Job paints a better picture.

The coalition government may be able to pass the budget, elect its prime minister and chief minister, and put together cabinets, but the sense of a still-to-come nail-biting denouement refuses to go away.

This is not due to Shehbaz Sharif or the various allies, who have become the proverbial boy who cried wolf. The problem lies elsewhere. This Hitchcockian uncertainty is perhaps largely due to the most powerful stakeholder — the most important ally of any government and the one whose departure signals the fall. Call it the establishment, the agri department or the neutrals; as Shakespeare once said, “a rose by any other name… .”

The problem is that this ally appears confused. To borrow an analogy, the ally picked up a load and now it is not too sure of carrying it all the way to the destination. Not everyone is agreed on this journey.

Indeed, the events of the past few months have polarised not only society and polity but also what constitutes the most powerful stakeholder. What exactly their difference of opinion is on may not be too obvious to outsiders. One can only wonder if they are worried about the corruption versus incompetence debate or their concerns are about more professional matters, closer to home. After all, we mortals, unlike Puck, know little of the tussles between the gods though we can become collateral damage of their infighting.

Khan and Sharif have the same goal: ‘pick me, choose me, love me’.

Had this difference of opinion not existed, Imran Khan’s (still) vague attacks on ‘namaloom afraad’ or the neutrals would have seemed no different from the PDM’s initial campaign when Nawaz Sharif too aimed a blistering assault in the same direction. But the unease seems greater now, even though both Khan and Sharif have the same goal — pick me, choose me, love me, in the words of Meredith Grey.

Consider that when the senior Sharif had done it, the discomfort in his party ranks and within the PDM was obvious. Most of his loyalists, too, found it as difficult to adopt the line as willingly as they embraced ‘vote ko izzat do’. But this time around, some among the second tier of the PTI are no less aggressive than their leader. Why do they think they can get away with the rhetoric that earlier only the top men or women could afford to indulge in?

Editorial: Establishment’s role

In addition, their rhetoric is also echoed by some of those who have moved on to golf courses. The last time, they had spent more time talking than playing golf was back in 2006-07. Which was also the last time, the institution had to publicly announce its orders of asking officials to stay away from politics.

This time, it appears, Khan’s attacks are not uniting the establishment against him, as did Nawaz’s, despite the anger on the street (be it the PDM campaign or Khan’s, the people have been struggling with inflation).

But many would dismiss these accounts as conjecture. Stuff that we can and do discuss earnestly over coffee or in drawing rooms, backed up by little more than ‘I was told by a friend or a relative or…’. And in oral societies such as ours, this doesn’t translate into fact. But there is perhaps another factor at play here. More than internal differences of opinions, the powerful are facing an onslaught from ‘their own kin’.

For this we need to understand PTI’s support base, which includes the more comfortable, middle class and (self-described) upper middle class members of Punjab. And many of them are not happy at the recent twists and turns of our politics. Because they are comfortable and secure enough to express their opinion, they have also made their concerns heard. They can afford to be loud and they are. As a journalist recently said in a speech which went viral: “aap ko takkar ke log milain hain” (you’ve met your match in your rivals). His words were even more insightful than he realises.

Read: Politics of establishment

This loud minority matters greatly to the establishment, not because they are relatives but because they are the ones who provide the legitimacy and sense of popular support to it. We have been told, time and again, since many of us were in our diapers that if there is a saviour and a guardian for us, internally and externally, it is just one organisation. But perhaps those who bought this lock, stock and barrel are mostly the comfortable and well-off in Punjab.

The other three provinces share a far more difficult relationship with our power centre. These are the citizens whose experience is shaped more by violence. For these less vulnerable, from the other provinces, the riyasat is rarely maa jaisee (like a mother) and it is more the disciplinarian father, which makes the relationship with Punjab all the more critical. If this relationship runs the risk of turning bitter, it will have to be addressed. This is what PTI is counting on, to an extent that Nawaz Sharif could not.

To come back to the uncertainty surrounding the government, this internal friction and criticism from parts of Punjab are the reasons the present set-up continues to be in danger. The most obvious solutions seem to point to fresh elections and this is apparent from the identity of many who are calling for the country to head to the polls.

However, this is not reason enough for the PTI to celebrate, despite its desire for fresh elections. It would do well to remember that the resolution to a crisis does not necessarily end the way it is envisaged. The present economic crisis can make the existing players irrelevant, by throwing up new ones. For while we are focusing on the wrangling within our elites, which is a story as old as Pakistan, the economic crisis and its intensity can play havoc with everyone’s calculations. Economic crises can and do change politics beyond recognition.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2022

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