A year after the VONC, Islamabad still reels from the aftershocks

So many times before have we been at this clichéd crossroads, where there is a political party at the peak of its popularity and its path to power has been blocked.
Published April 18, 2023

We must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory — Milan Kundera

April marks a year since the PTI government was removed through a vote of no confidence. A year, which for a generation or two has been one of great change; for others, it has simply brought more of the same. Change, this past year has made one realise, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

But even those who feel a sense of déjà vu can sense the unfamiliarity; in the midst of here we go again — and there have been many such moments in the past one year — there is much that is unknown.

It strikes me that our everyday conversations on television, where we are mandated to discuss every slight hand movement of the various players around the chess board, most discussions inevitably turn to what happened last year — the VONC, why it happened, how everyone misjudged the support for the PTI, and how it has changed the complexion of the voter base, especially in Punjab.

But this constant reference to the past perhaps happens because of our complete inability to project what the coming days, weeks or months will bring. And this uncertainty about the future is far more critical than all that we do know and focus on.

So, what is it that we do know a year later?

‘The old gods are dead’

The situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab has changed drastically. The PML-N’s domination of GT Road, which was challenged only once earlier by Musharraf’s regime, is by all accounts an old story.

The future of Punjab, it is now assumed, belongs to the PTI, as does KP’s. Meanwhile the PML-N, left with a narrow support base limited to central Punjab, is now hell bent on delaying elections to prevent a PTI victory in the province. How extensive is this impending defeat and how temporary or permanent it may be remains to be seen.

The situation in KP is not much different because there too, the past year has robbed the JUI-F of its chances of gaining from the fatigue factor — after all, the PTI was in its second term in the province and its weakening had helped the JUI-F. But all this changed, as it did in Punjab, with the removal of the PTI, followed by the foreign conspiracy rhetoric and then the inflationary spiral since.

This soaring popularity has also consolidated Imran’s control over the party in a way that wasn’t apparent in his three years of power. As a prime minister heading a coalition government with a razor thin majority, he was a weak executive in many ways. The military establishment, meanwhile, was heavy handed in its approach, not hiding the fact that it managed everything; all this encouraged party members and allies to openly criticise the government and Imran.

If there were any successes, they were quickly attributed to others — Jahangir Khan Tareen managed allies and electables; the establishment, especially Faiz Hameed, managed votes; Bajwa took care of of the relationship with foreign powers and the financial assistance.

But all this is in the past. Imran Khan is PTI and PTI is Imran Khan and while he may be surrounded by those who can influence or guide him, there is no one else to whom any success or decision can be attributed. It is a one-man show and no one, not even critics, can say to the contrary.

The PML-N, on the other hand, is no longer a one-man show. The weakening of the party’s electoral chances have already led to dissenting voices, further amplified by family differences. The latter are no secret and also allow for some of the ridicule coming the way of say Shehbaz Sharif or Ishaq Dar.

More importantly, there is now no clarity on who will lead the party into the next elections. Will it be the brother or the daughter or the grand old quaid himself, as some keep saying. This last year has also shattered the myth of Shehbaz Sharif as the great hope — the man who would be able to balance governance and a good relationship with the powers that be. At the same time, another myth has been shattered — that of Maryam Nawaz’s ability to immediately fill her father’s shoes, which is why so many are clamouring for his return.

Amid all this, the PPP is seen as the winner of this past year, for the party’s support base in Sindh is intact while the PDM government has allowed Bilawal to be launched at the national and global stage. With the PML-N down with the people and PTI unacceptable to the establishment, only the PPP is left standing.

How can Bilawal and his party not gain from this? Connect this to the rumours of how the powers that be have narrowed down on him as their new choice whenever elections are held and there is reason to celebrate. Although, it is still unclear if the celebrations are for a long-term plan where the older generation of Asif Ali Zardari, Mian Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan will no longer be active and there will be space for the people to choose a younger leader or if it’s for this upcoming elections, where Bilawal will be selected for the job regardless of the voting choices of the public at large.

This latter option will still require the PPP to strike outside Sindh and win big at least in South Punjab. But can it?

The two shoulders of Atlas

Beyond the political parties and their electoral chances, this year has brought only polarisation — not just among the people and whom they want to vote for in an election and for what reasons. No, the polarisation has spread much further, to the institutions, especially the ones that usually kept or were used to keep the politicians in line.

At the moment, the most obvious one is the judiciary, where two camps seem to have emerged — one with the chief justice and the other one with the incoming chief, Qazi Faez Isa. While it appears that the division is over the suo moto notice regarding the conduct of Punjab elections, in reality, the divide is far greater; senior lawyer Faisal Siddiqi hinted in an online show on Naya Daur that the differences have grown to the extent of fear. He suggested that some of the robed ones fear that the change of guard later this year will threaten their own existence in the highest court of the land. This fear is reason enough for open warfare, which many lawyers now anticipate will lead to the two camps passing orders against each other.

That is not to say that the divide is not political — events in recent days with the Chief Justice of Pakistan pushing for elections, the government’s attacks on him and the presence of Qazi Faez Isa in Parliament all point to the fact that the fault line is indeed political. Whether or not it plays out this way, at the moment, the polarisation is as stark as the one in political imagination.

But it is important to note the timing of this eruption in the SC. After all, the CJP’s powers to form benches and select those who will be part of them is nothing new and neither is the resentment against this one-man show. Every chief has had his blue eyed boys who would be at the forefront of all the ‘fun’, headline grabbing cases while others seethed quietly. Former CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry was even known for rarely allowing dissenting notes.

Perhaps it was just a matter of time before this volcano erupted. But is it simply a coincidence that this eruption came along with the SC taking up a case that perhaps didn’t suit the powers that be? The answer to this will become clear only once the dust settles.

The other institution is getting less attention these days, but only on the mainstream media. Move away from the cameras and the first question asked is about the mood of the establishment. The man at the top has changed, but the policies it seems have not, despite the brouhaha over the TTP and the talks held with the banned outfit.

For politics in the land of the pure, however, there is the posture of neutrality and the whispers about the redline across the PTI. Had this redline not been drawn, the PDM may not have been so sure of its own power and moral authority to defy orders, pass resolutions and enact laws to deal with the judgments.

This perhaps is also the reason why all this talk of the establishment not being willing to act as an arbiter is a bit of fluff and wishes. For in this latest chapter of never-ending twists and turns, the establishment is as much of a player as the rest and a player cannot be an arbiter. Indeed, this is no Kakar moment or Sajjad Ali Shah moment, where the third force can step in (to break the Ghulam Ishaq Khan-Nawaz Sharif stalemate) or stay away (from the Sajjad Ali Shah-MNS battle). That a senior politician such as Mushahid Husain is saying out loud that the Saudi prince can arbitrate the current crisis too lends credence to this — the establishment is in no position to play this role.

But this is not the only issue that complicates the matter. As with the Supreme Court, but less obvious, are the hushed reports of the divisions within — hushed only for those in the mainstream media. Step into the wild west of social media (or even the drawing rooms) and it seems the battle is ongoing.

It upsets many, for we have been socialised into believing that if there is one institution that should be infallible in Pakistan, it is the establishment — even an imagined crack in its exterior becomes a threat for the wellbeing of the state.

Consequently, there is great anger at the constant criticism, the unending campaign and the trolls so much so that no questions may be asked about why it is happening. Why is there anger? Is it a blip or something more? The issue is far too sensitive for questions to be asked and answers sought; but with time, perhaps this too can be probed.

And yet, for a soul such as myself, these developments in Pakistan’s institutions (along with the positions of the three political parties) will shape the coming days. For it is hard to remember the last time that there was divergence to this degree between these two institutions when it came to dealing with a beleaguered government or political party. It was also this very alliance that kept simmering in the big white court building undercover.

But with a breakdown of this alliance and the differences within, the confusion has increased manifold. No wonder then, it feels the order is breaking down — the confrontation at Zaman Park where the law enforcement failed to arrest Khan is a case in point. Someone recently even brought up a dreaded phrase — civil war. He asked what else a civil war looked like, when the state’s law enforcement personnel can’t get jobs done.

For the parties and their politics, all this is not new. So many times before have we been at this clichéd crossroads, where there is a political party at the peak of its popularity and its path to power has been blocked. Admittedly, this path is never closed forever; the people do get to eventually express their choice but before they get around to it, there is a diversion.

The tools needed for this diversion, however, seem less sharp this time around. This is not to say they can’t be used, but their bluntness can yield a less effective result. The bluntness is evident in the absence of a legal cover for whatever the powers that be might think of an option; in the confidence of a military leader who has all his followers solidly behind his decisions; and in the central role he can play in ensuring the world is kind to Pakistan.

Economic turmoil

The third major factor will be the economy. The inflation, the unemployment and the emergency measures such as curbs on imports have already had their impact on people, which has in turn been a major factor in Imran’s rising popularity. Here, the crowds outside Zaman Park hint at far more than just the support for a man — they point to poverty and unemployment as well. The great social unrest, where so many who aspire to a better future, are bewildered at the crushing economic environment and are counting on a miracle, a saviour.

Read more: PDM’s economic year in review

But it also limits the options available to the other players; or shall one say, the longevity of the options that appear to be within reach. For faceless and non-political solutions (such as a technocratic government) at times of great economic distress are tough to pull off in environs such as ours. And extending the current setup will simply lead to more of the same; the government has already been in place for a year and yet the uncertainty around its tenure has prevented it from taking any long-term economic measures. A similar uncertain extension by delaying the election will not change its incentives to take any difficult decisions.

In other words, if the focus remains on crisis management of the economy — the government continues to wonder how long they will remain in power, and international friends have to continually be prepared to give more and more — the pot will not simmer for too long. An explosion ala the potions class at Hogwarts is more likely.

Amid all the uncertainty, we keep circling back to the political parties and their chances in an election. For only here can we delve back into the past to speak of qubooliyat and maqbooliyat — the power of the powers that be in holding back a popular leader and judges who can’t keep it together. Perhaps for once, the past (or parts of it) is another country.