In the breeze, there is a shudder of transition. If you do not put your ear to the deck, you will miss it. In the last fortnight, politics has changed and is now moving into a new phase that will allow Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to breathe comfortably. There is a deep rumble of unease beneath the shudder of change, though. This is how:
On the brink of being smug, PTI is. Speak to the representatives of the party and they exude a confidence that smells like newly coated paint. If you may, the swagger of 2021 is deeply embedded in their understanding that their rivals miscuited, misaimed and misfired.
In September, when the opposition formed its PDM alliance, there was some concern in the Red Zone, some anxiety in October when PDM took out respectable jalsas, some nervousness in November when Nawaz Sharif ratcheted up his rhetoric against the state and the regime, and some fear in December when the PDM movement rumbled towards Lahore.
Did PTI better play its cards than PDM did? Or in the heavens, was it destined? It may be too premature to come up with a definite response, but what is increasingly bubbling to the surface is a grudging acknowledgment among many in PDM that there is a yawning difference between what they wished for, what they were hoping for, and what they received. It may matter less for the PPP because it is still in the game with its government and its double-edged politics, and it may also matter less for Maulana Fazlur Rehman because he doesn’t have so much to lose in either event, but for PML-N, which poured almost all it had into the campaign, and the kitchen sink.
But first, the grumbling inside the PPP is there. One influential party person explains how PML-N and JUI-shoot-from-the-hip F’s approach has irritated the party. He says no one believed his party leadership in the plan of Nawaz Sharif to take the names of the army chief and DG ISI in the Gujranwala Jalsa. PML-N leaders state in their defence that they, too, had no idea that Sharif was going to take this drastic measure. Although seated on the stage as their allies were, they were as taken aback.
The bureaucracy, however, had gotten wind of Sharif’s plans, according to a reliable source, and even secretly urged the party leadership to desist from this course of action.
Similarly, he says, in early January, PML-N still did not sync its language on the topic of resignations with PPP, leading to uncertainty and inevitably backtracking. “Before announcing that the PDM would break up the Senate electoral college, Maulana did not consult us,” he complained. It was only after the PPP experts had given the leaders of PML-N and JUI-F a thorough briefing that they realised that even though the opposition withdrew from the assemblies, Senate elections could still go ahead.
The PML-N is looking after its own complaints. “Bilawal never committed resignations and kept saying that after consulting his party, he would do so,” says one legislator from PML-N. He believes that, even though the PPP does not, it is very hard for his faction to go ahead and withdraw. “We’re in a tough situation,” he admits.
It is difficult to gauge the scale of this challenge, but the extent of it is very severe. Party sources say that, regardless of the implications, Mian Nawaz Sharif is fully sure of the righteousness of his militant stance. So far, they note, there is no hint that he is able to accept any choices for the establishment that are more conciliatory. In a dilemma, this leaves several individuals within the group. Their obedience to the leader allows them in letter and spirit to obey his command, although their own reasoning tells them that the group should maintain some dialogue with the state.The DNA of the group is a mu-tated one, one part of it wishes to take on the establishment while the other chooses to involve it, and the mutation refuses to blend into a singularity.
Now within PML-N, the cyclical dominance of one DNA strand over the other is becoming a recurrent phenomenon. The violent DNA erupted in full force in the aftermath of the Panama Papers issue until it weakened when Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz went into jail. The conciliatory one then lifted his head. Some backchannel talks followed with Shehbaz Sharif’s leading party strategy, eventually leading to Nawaz Sharif being allowed to leave for London. The violent DNA snarled back into motion after a period of a few months when Shehbaz was apprehended and sent behind bars.This time, Nawaz himself piloted the violence, leading by speeches and protests to more than three months of violent rhetoric. And still, is the rotation of cyclical DNA able to take another turn?
This is where the party stands now, at the cusp of a decision that in the short to medium term will decide its political future. The Shehbaz factor is still alive, still applicable and still relevant. It is inactive, though. And then, unless and until there is a London decision, the group has to do a clever shuffle and get back into the game of control. “Today, we are nowhere close to such a decision,” a party leader acknowledges, noting, “we may need to start talking about this within ourselves.”
That is where the 2021 swagger from PTI comes in. The dominant opinion at internal party meetings is that the PML-N and JUI-F have shot themselves in the foot, so PTI has a full two years plus a barrel of change. This is simpler said than done. The cabinet squad is a disjointed one, according to sources, with loud bickering and one-upmanship a staple at almost any cabinet meeting. It is observed that most ministers talk more about other ministries than about their own. Governance appears to present PTI with a greater challenge than PDM does.
Things can alter if the long march of the opposition takes form. But that’s already at least three months out. Before then, both parties will fight more against their own ghosts than against their political rivals.