The optics suggest so. His stars are aligning in the right combination and the chessboard is arranged to ensure a checkmate of his rival. Allies are lining up nicely and electable horses, sniffing the wind, are cantering to his stables. In PTI ranks, there is a whiff of victory and a scent of success. As election year approaches, Imran Khan is the man to beat.
And yet what lies between him and his coronation as the next prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan?
The treacherous terrain stretching from now till the elections is mined with an array of improbable probabilities that can explode without warning. So far Imran has successfully navigated the minefield and in the process laid a few mines of his own.
It looks like a level playing field from his perspective because the field has been leveled for him. There is panic in the enemy camp — and infighting in its ranks — while the road to elections for the PTI is clear, paved and carpeted. What could possibly go more right?
Here are five developments that could further cement Imran’s position as the leading contender for the office of the prime minister in 2018:
1. If Nawaz Sharif and his children are convicted by the Accountability Court and sentenced to prison. The legal, moral and political blow to Imran’s arch-rival will be devastating.
2. If the Supreme Court decides to re-open the Hudaibiya Mills case against the Sharifs (after the hearing that starts tomorrow) and NAB files a fresh reference leading ultimately to a trial against almost the entire family and engulfing Imran’s other rival Shehbaz Sharif in a legal bonfire.
3. If political engineering in urban Sindh goes further awry leading the PSP and the MQM-P to cannibalise each other (and their respective vote banks) leaving space for Imran’s party to make fresh inroads and perhaps grab a few seats from Karachi.
4. If the establishment’s efforts to conjure up an anti-PPP electoral alliance in Sindh frees up space for PTI to establish a foothold in rural Sindh, helped of course by deft seat adjustments in critical constituencies and fiery campaign by Imran himself deep in the Sindh heartland to discredit the PPP leadership and its corrupt and incompetent governance.
5. If the conviction of the elder Sharif and a possible Hudaibiya knockout blow to Shehbaz leads to an internal haemorrhaging of the party. PML-N electables then scramble across to the PTI camp enabling Imran to cherry-pick the strongest and field them in key constituencies in Punjab. With a sizeable increase in his seats in Punjab, a solid result in K-P and valuable additional seats from urban and rural Sindh, the PTI could muster up enough numbers to make a bid for forming a government with the help of independents and other parties.
These factors are buttressed by the more non-tangible one, led by the clichéd tabdeeli mantra. It is clichéd, it is a mantra and it has not manifested itself too gloriously in the province that Imran has ruled, and yet now more than ever it may resonate among the electorate. Yes it may do so not because Imran has suddenly gone all ideological again (he hasn’t), or that he has presented a revolutionary manifesto (he hasn’t), or even that he has ignited a popular movement that is swelling like a tidal wave (he hasn’t) — no, the tabdeeli mantra may find traction again not because of anything that Khan has done but what his rivals have done (or not done).
That’s a political reverse swing, if ever there was one.
The moral degradation of the PPP was thorough and comprehensive by the time its five-year rule ended in 2013. The party that survived all these years on its victimhood narrative ultimately became a victim of its own rapacious corruption, unabashed cronyism and legendary incompetence. By the time elections 2013 came around, the PPP was a discredited caricature of its original self and few were surprised when it was savaged by the electorate everywhere except in its home province of Sindh. In the four years since then, the PPP has cemented its position as an exceedingly unexceptional political entity out of tune with voters and with times. Where once the Bhuttos elicited admiration, today they elicit snickers.
The PML-N is nowhere near that stage. Despite all the turbulence of the last few months and the pummelling the party has received by the judiciary, it rules quite comfortably at the centre and Punjab. Barring some unconstitutional move, the PML-N is set to serve out its full term till the end of May 2018 and head to the polls on the back of a narrative wrapped around ‘development and delivery’.
And yet ‘Brand Sharif’ is being morally degraded in slow motion as the Panama disqualification morphs into the Accountability Court trial and now re-opening of the Hudaibiya case relating to charges of money laundering. Moral degradation is a slippery slope shaped by a strange combination of facts, rumours and perceptions. Once the slide begins, it is hard to stop. Real hard. Some may say Brand Sharif is on the edge of this slope; others may argue it is already hurtling down.
In either case it is clear that that taken together, Panama allegations, Supreme Court proceeding, JIT report, SC judgments and now the trial itself have all combined to bring Brand Sharif to a stage where Khan can equate Sharif to Zardari and get people nodding. The tabdeeli mantra is taking on a new life.
But who is the architect of this tabdeeli today? Where Khan has successfully painted Zardari and Sharif in the same hues, the counter-narrative by the PML-N has also — rightly or wrongly — portrayed Khan as the Establishment’s baby leading the charge against them atop a tank. Tabdeeli is a powerful phenomenon that often overshadows the change maker. Today, a few months before the elections, Pakistan stands at a juncture where the road ahead could be full of surprises, unexpected twists, and yes — ‘tabdeeli’ too.
But will this tabdeeli be triggered by an urge for genuine change? Will it be sparked off by a surge of popular sentiment hungering for reform by a new leadership? Or will it be engineered to redraw the political landscape so it more accurately reflects the national interests of Pakistan in an era of dizzying change?
Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2017.