The Opposition shall sit across a table today and have Iftar. And talk. And plan. And plot.
Sunday May 19, 2019 is the day that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz Sharif will meet face to face for the first time as key leaders of their respective parties. It is a day that could launch a thousand plans to bring down the Imran Khan government with a thousand cuts. It is also a day that could weaponise the PML-N — PPP relationship into an alliance with a specific agenda.
Here’s what could (and perhaps should) transpire jab they meet:
1. The Opposition needs to be crystal clear what it wants: oust the government or weaken it? Throwing Imran Khan out of power is easier said than done. There may be many hot-heads in both Maryam and Bilawal’s parties that may advocate going for Khan’s jugular, but the more rational and sane people know the Opposition does not have the requisite ammunition in its arsenal to blast the government out of power. Yes the government is fumbling and bumbling and making a fool of itself with amazing regularity, but here’s what it still has: a) support of the Establishment; b) required parliamentary numbers; c) time.
2. Both the PML-N and the PPP should snap out of their own denials: each is burdened with its own baggage that continues to weigh it down. The PML-N has been a restrained Opposition these last eight months because of its internal confusion and the fate of the Sharif family. The recent reshuffle within the party has cleared some ambiguities but many still hover. The battle of narratives is far from settled as course correction continues inside the party.
3. The PPP should also be under no delusion: any movement it launches against the government will remain overshadowed by the legal woes of the party’s co-chairman, Asif Zardari. Bilawal Bhutto may be coming into his own as a politician and he may be saying the right things in the right tone at the right time, but words can only go so far. A vast majority of Pakistanis are not exactly itching to gather under his banner regardless of his sharp attacks on the inept government. The moment a party begins to believe its own bombastic rhetoric, trouble is around the corner. Ask the PTI.
4. The Opposition should know this: it has not grown taller; the PTI has shrunk in stature under the weight of its own incompetence. The Opposition can hardly take credit for it.
5. Both young party leaders may want to take an honest stock of their own mistakes. Is the Pakistani voter ready to trust them despite the appalling performance of the PTI so far? Does the PPP really think it has the answers to the PTI’s problems today? Sindh isn’t exactly a model of brilliant governance. Does the PML-N have solutions to the economic woes of Pakistan if it finds itself back in power today? Does it have a plan beyond trashing the PTI? The PML-N and the PPP may answer: “why should we gift the PTI with solutions?” Fair enough. But then tell this to the voters who you want to bring out on the streets.
6. The PPP calls Imran Khan “selected” PM. The PML-N says the elections were stolen. Who selected the the PM? Who stole the election? If you look at the speeches and comments of the Opposition in the last few months you will notice a distinct reduction of criticism against the Establishment. Better sense prevailing? Rational thought substituting reckless idealism? In either case, the real test lies in the post-Eid scenario. If both parties plan to dial up the pressure through street agitation, will they train their guns away from the Establishment? This has to be a key question to ponder jab they meet.
7. Winter may have come to Winterfell but summer is coming to Pakistan. We won’t face the Night King and his army of the dead, but we will surely battle crippling inflation, skyrocketing utility bills and debilitating loadshedding. That’s a sure recipe for inflammable passions and combustible emotions. Sustained street agitation when the sun is bearing down mercilessly is not an easy task. The Opposition will need to figure out whether it wants a short intense round of street agitation to display its muscle and pile some pressure on the hapless government, or it wants to keep the agitation on low heat and build it up slowly over months leading up to the strategically significant month of November. If that be so, the end objective will need to be thrashed out in considerable detail. At stake is the system itself.
8. In Opposition, the PTI gave us hope. In government, it dashed it. Can today’s Opposition provide any hope? Jab they meet, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto should ponder how their parties — having had multiple stints in power — can still conjure up hope in these dark times. What will constitute hope today? Perhaps a road map to redemption; perhaps an alternative to Khan’s governance; perhaps even an acknowledgement of past mistakes and promises of a new beginning. This requires moral courage and clarity of conviction.
9. The Opposition needs to have a higher purpose than just replacing the government. Pakistan has experimented with all players now. Even the Umpire has played it innings. What now? Jab they meet, Maryam and Bilawal should feel themselves weighed down by this fundamental question. It is not who will govern next but how will they govern. The ‘how’ part needs to be addressed beyond bombastic rhetoric and partisan slogans. Politics-as-usual won’t cut it now. A sharp focus on solutions is what is needed. Will that sharp focus be on display at today’s Iftar?
10. The Opposition requires a simple and effective narrative stitched together by some grand theme. Can such a commonality be weaved between Maryam Nawaz, Bilawal Bhutto and Maulana Fazlur Rehman? Imagine the optics. Visualise the photo-op. Some contradictions are begging to be ironed out.
A difficult To-Do list awaits jab they meet.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2019.