Faites vos jeux!

By: Najam Sethi

Maulana Fazalur Rehman’s efforts to unite the PMLN and PPP and launch agitation against the PTI government have finally borne some fruit. An Iftar dinner last week of all opposition parties was presided over by Bilawal Bhutto and included Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Mariam Nawaz Sharif, Maulana Fazal and a clutch of leaders of small parties. The moot agreed on one point: a consensus strategy on the way forward would be stitched up at an All Parties Conference after Eid. But differences of emphasis and opinion were conspicuous.

Both the PPP and PMLN say the PTI government should be allowed to complete its tenure. Neither said a word against the ubiquitous Miltablishment they hate as the bane of their existence. Both want to peg the agitation to the discontent of the masses following the IMF’s harsh measures. Both are at pains to ‘clarify’ that their opposition is not related to the corruption trials and tribulations of their leaders at the hands of the PTI government, Miltablishment and NAB.

The ANP leader from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, whose only son was assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban, was more forthright. He laid the multiple woes of the country, including the rigged elections of 2018, squarely at the door of the Miltablishment. But the JUI’s Maulana Fazal and the two leaders of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement present, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, were more circumspect, refraining from attacking the Miltablishment, a notable departure from earlier practice.

Clearly, there seems to be a consensus that the attack should be focused on Imran Khan and NAB, and the Miltablishment should not be provoked further.

What happens at the APC after Eid when the austerity budget will be announced by the PTI government will depend on how events shape the political fate of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari. The former is desperate to get bail and exit the country. The latter is anxious to avoid arrest by NAB in multiple cases of money laundering and corrupt practices. Whoever gets some palpable relief will not wish to antagonize the Miltablishment (that is fully backing the PTI government) by wholeheartedly participating in any anti-government agitation. But if both leaders are crucified, then we may expect their parties to mount an agitation on the back of widespread popular anger at galloping inflation and soaring joblessness.

Mr Zardari is running from court to court, posting or extending bail. He could be arrested at any time. But Mr Sharif’s fate will take longer to decide. His bail application in the Islamabad High Court and pursuant appeals in the Supreme Court will not be conclusively decided in less than two or three months. So it is unlikely that the PMLN will risk any direct confrontation with the Miltablishment-backed PTI government until then. In other words, the probability is that the APC after the budget will be more sound and fury than militant protest.

As a measure of what lies in store, a recent interview by the NAB Chairman, Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal, to a TV anchor and columnist has diluted the media impact of the Iftar dinner. He says Asif Zardari and Hamza Shahbaz will be arrested soon. He implied that the Sharifs want an NRO deal. He admits that the PTI government won’t last ten minutes if NAB were to open cases against its political allies and new entrants but revealingly adds that he doesn’t want to create political instability. In short, his interview has confirmed the counter charge that NAB is under pressure from the PM to pursue the PPP and PMLN and sway public opinion against the opposition leaders.

Meanwhile, before they chalk out their respective strategies, the opposition political parties would do well to make a proper determination of the exact power dynamics of the relationship between Imran Khan and the Miltablishment. Some people think that Imran Khan has considerable autonomy in taking core political decisions, especially in relation to the opposition. Others believe that the Miltablishment calls the shots and Imran Khan is a mere puppet. If the former is correct, then a policy that focuses on confronting Imran Khan will pay dividends. But if the latter is the case, then nothing will be gained by tiptoeing around the Miltablishment. Indeed, a better policy might be to attack Imran Khan for the worsening economic and social conditions of the country while simultaneously alluding to the real puppet master behind him. This assessment would also imply that the Miltablishment has taken Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Zardari for a ride and is wholly responsible for their tribulations. It would, in the event, compel the opposition to calibrate its policies accordingly.

In the next six months, three developments will cast a shadow over political stability in Pakistan. First, the personal fate of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif at the hands of NAB and the courts. Second, the simmering rage of the people at their IMF-sponsored disembowelment. Third, change or continuity in the Miltablishment high command. Faites vos jeux, place your bets, ladies and gentlemen!

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