By Ayaz Amir
Call this the revenge of the PML-N. So soon after his stepping down they have managed to make controversial their erstwhile nemesis, Gen Raheel Sharif. Look at the defence minister’s forked tongue: first insinuating that the general’s acceptance of the phantom command – of an alliance that exists only in the imagination of its Saudi authors – was almost a done deal, and now backtracking by saying that the government knows nothing about it.
Too clever-by-half, but the damage to the general – which it would not be too far-fetched to assume was the intended purpose – has been done. Who’s to tell retired generalissimo’s what is appropriate, what looks good and what is self-defeating? Why didn’t he come up with a denial, or an explanation, once Khawaja Asif came out with his clever statement? Would it have lowered his dignity? With the general discomfited I can picture the PML-N’s smart guys rubbing their hands in glee.
A word of caution, though: no Gen Raheel Sharif, no Field Marshal Montgomery, can help resolve the many quandaries our Saudi friends have got themselves into. They are stuck in Yemen and there is no easy way out of that quagmire. Their entire stance in Syria has turned out to be wrong. They wanted Assad’s downfall and far from that happening he is emerging as the winner from Syria’s prolonged agony. The Saudis have no Syrian arrow left in their quiver. And in that other war in Iraq they are merely angry bystanders with no meaningful role to play.
Their so-called Islamic Defence Alliance against Terrorism is a futile attempt to claw back some relevance. Sadly, however, no conquering general can infuse meaning into a concept which inherently lacks meaning. So why is Gen Raheel even thinking of taking up this assignment? And if it is remuneration he’s after the less said about that the better.
One thing this incident makes amply clear: if there was a role for the general in domestic politics that door is now effectively shut. The chances are slim that people disillusioned with other possibilities would be streaming towards his door or holding him up as a messiah to solve Pakistan’s many ills and give the country a new start. That illusion is over, sooner than anyone would have thought.
We are left with the old horses on the field. One positive outcome has already been established, and we have to be thankful to the Panama leaks for that. The PML-N looks to be all powerful but the halo has slipped from its head. The Panama hearings will lead to no convictions – let us not nurse any more illusions – but the leadership stands tarred with the brush of offshore accounts and foreign properties. Both these things were already there but this scandal has left their imprint on people’s minds.
In the Punjabi heartland there were people who really thought that the Sharifs were the answer to Pakistan’s problems. They still may be voted to another round of power – there is no easy way to predict these things – but the glory image lies shattered. The powerful argument that they always spun that they were never allowed to complete their term, and by extension never allowed to fulfil their duty to the nation, now lies exhausted. They will have their full term and if to this is added the full Punjab term previous to this it comes to a Thatcherite ten unbroken years in power, not to mention their earlier twenty years at the top in Punjab and the centre. No more is it possible to trot out the old excuses for inadequacy or ineptitude.
And what have they to show for the longest stint in power in Pakistan’s history except a handful of ‘mega-projects’. Every good thing palls in the end. The best dishes you keep aside if served too often. The mega-project allure if not already bedimmed will also pass. The record in office that then remains is pretty thin.
But the PML-N’s power is not to be under-estimated. It remains redoubtable in Punjab and if you take each constituency the heavyweight factor – that of local electables – is heavily tilted in its favour. How to prise this advantage apart? This is the foremost challenge before the opposition parties.
The strongest opposition party in Punjab is the PTI. That is Imran Khan’s achievement and he’s worked hard and long for this. But if the PTI thinks it can swing the opposition vote in Punjab on its own then it is probably mistaken. It needs to read Punjab’s political map correctly. To challenge the PML-N and knock it off its commanding pedestal the PTI, to my mind and this is of course my opinion for what it is worth, will have to make local adjustments…with, say, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi in the few constituencies where the PML-Q still matters and – wait for this – with the PPP which down and out until now is slowly recovering from the ashes of its drubbing in the last elections.
Faisal Saleh Hayat’s rejoining his old party is a straw in the wind, perhaps prefiguring more such swings in the months ahead. He has always been a heavyweight in his Jhang constituency and for the Punjab PPP his entry is a shot in the arm.
The Gilanis in Multan, the Makhdooms in Rahim Yar Khan, someone like Samina Ghurki in Lahore, the Kairas in Lalamusa, sundry other figures in central Punjab, my friend Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in Gujar Khan, are all potential electables. Since the last elections it had become the fashion to write off the PPP. Now can be seen the faint stirrings of life in that inert body. Nothing is constant, nothing remains forever.
The larger point remains that a solo flight will not do the trick. For fighting the Sharifs who remain very powerful some sort of loose coalition, with constituency adjustments at its heart, will probably be necessary. If Nawabzada Nasrullah were around he would already have started work on this possibility. No one at present remotely approaches him in his never-ending subtlety, his gift for improvisation, his inexhaustible patience as he would try to put water and fire together.
Bizarre as it may sound a politician who has come of age – although I know there would be no end of people ready to hit the ceiling when I say this – and who is showing some element of the late Nawabzada’s finesse is everyone’s favourite loudmouth of yesterday, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.
But the task is not easy. Imran Khan rides a high horse and with justification because he has popular support behind him. But barring a movement like the one Zulfikar Ali Bhutto led against Ayub Khan in 1968-69, Pakistan’s politics of today plays along a more modest musical scale. In 1970 Bhutto fielded lampposts in the elections and they won. Maulana Kausar Niazi was in prison and was elected MNA from a constituency in Sialkot he had never visited. It’s not going to happen this time. The Sharifs had a wave behind them in 2008. Now it’s patronage and constituency politics. The wave has ebbed away.
Anyway, with the Panama hearings leading to no miracles or dramatics – I think we can be pretty sure about this – it’s time for the political parties to get down to some serious homework. How long can Pakistan afford a dictatorship of secret wealth and not-so-secret mediocrity?