There is a shudder of change in the air. You might miss it if you do not put your ear to the ground. Politics has shifted in the last fortnight and is now transitioning into a new phase that will enable the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to breathe easy. Underneath the shudder of change, however, there is a deep rumble of unease.
PTI is on the verge of getting smug. Speak to party leaders and they are exuding confidence that smells like freshly coated paint. The swagger of 2021. if you may is rooted firmly in their recognition that their opponents miscued, misaimed, and misfired.
In the Red Zone there was some concern in September when the opposition formed its PDM alliance, some fear in October when PDM pulled off respectable salsas, some nervousness in November when Nawaz Sharif ratcheted up his rhetoric against the establishment and the system, and some dread in December when the PDM campaign growled its way towards Lahore but come January, all concern, fear, nervousness, and dread has evaporated into the frigid air of Islamabad and replaced by a quasi-triumphant attitude.
Did PTI play its cards better than PDM did? Or was it fated in the stars? Perhaps it is too soon to forge a definitive answer but what is slowly bubbling to the surface is a grudging recognition among many in PDM that there is a yawning gap between what they hoped, what they aimed, and what they got. For the PPP it may matter less because it is still in the game with its government and its double-edged politics, and for Maulana Fazlur Rehman to it may matter less because he does not have too much to lose in any case, but for PML-N that threw almost everything it had, and the kitchen sink, into the campaign — the stakes could not be higher. This is exactly why, if you put your ear to the ground, you can hear the faint sounds of grumbling.
But first, there is the grumbling within PPP. One prominent party person describes how the party has been frustrated with the shoot-from-the-hip policy of PML-N and JUI-F. He says no one took his party leadership into confidence about Nawaz Sharif’s plan to take the names of the army chief and DG ISI in the Gujranwala jalsa. In their defense, PML-N leaders say they too had no idea Sharif was about to take this extreme step. They were as taken aback while sitting on the stage as their allies were.
However, according to a credible source, the establishment had got wind of Sharif’s intentions and even quietly advised the party leadership to desist from this course of action.
Similarly, he says, PML-N also did not align its rhetoric on the resignations issue with PPP leading to confusion and ultimately backtracking in early January. “Maulana did not consult us before announcing that PDM would break the Senate electoral college,” he complained. It was only after the PPP experts had given a detailed briefing to PML-N and JUI-F leaders that they understood that Senate elections could still go ahead even if the opposition resigned from the assemblies.
The PML-N is nursing its own grievances. “Bilawal never committed on resignations and kept on saying he would do so after consulting his party,” says one PML-N legislator. He argues it is very difficult for his party to go ahead and resign even if PPP doesn’t. “We are in a difficult situation,” he admits.
The scale of this difficulty is hard to gauge but the nature of it is fairly grave. Party insiders say Mian Nawaz Sharif is absolutely convinced of the righteousness of his aggressive stance regardless of its consequences. So far, they say, there is no indication that he is willing to consider other more conciliatory options towards the establishment. This leaves many people inside the party in a quandary. Their loyalty to the leader requires them to follow his command in letter and spirit, while their own thinking tells them that the party should maintain some dialogue with the establishment. The party DNA is a mutated one part wanting to take on the establishment while the other preferring to engage it and the mutation is refusing to blend into a singularity.
The cyclical domination of one DNA strand over the other is now becoming a recurring phenomenon within PML-N. In the wake of the Panama Papers issue, the aggressive DNA raged in full force till it abated when Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz went into prison. Then the conciliatory one raised its head. With Shehbaz Sharif leading party policy, some backchannel negotiations ensued that ultimately led to Nawaz Sharif being allowed to leave for London. After a gap of a few months, the aggressive DNA snarled back into action as Shehbaz was arrested and sent behind bars. This time the aggression was piloted by Nawaz himself leading to more than three months of inflammatory rhetoric through speeches and rallies. And yet, is the cyclical DNA rotation ready to take another turn?
Here’s where the party stands today on a cusp of a decision that may determine its political future in the short to medium term. The Shehbaz factor is still alive, still relevant and still applicable. But it is dormant. And so it shall until and unless there is a decision from London that the party needs to do a smart shuffle and get back in the game of power. “We are nowhere near such a decision today,” admits a party leader and adds: “we may need to start talking about this within ourselves.”
That’s where PTI’s 2021 swagger comes in. In internal party meetings, the dominant view is that PML-N and JUI-F have shot themselves in the foot and therefore PTI has a full two years plus to barrel ahead with reform. That is easier said than done. According to insiders, the cabinet team is a disjointed one with noisy bickering and one-upmanship a hallmark of almost every cabinet meeting. Most ministers are found speaking more about other ministries than their own. Governance continues to pose a bigger challenge to PTI than PDM does.
Things may change if the opposition’s long march takes shape. But that is still three months away at the least. Till then, both sides will be fighting their own demons more than their political opponents.