Events have cascaded down to us like a river raging through deep and rocky ravines. Where’s the steadying hand when you need it? Let’s take stock:
1. Nawaz Sharif is in jail, Shehbaz Sharif is in London and the party is in transition. It is a transition that may yet take a toll unbeknownst to many. And yet in one week, this transition has brought Maryam Nawaz bang into the centre of it all. She is still weighed down by her legal travails and continues to face an uncertain parliamentary future, but she is now clearly leading the charge. But charge against whom?
2. Ah, there’s the rub. The transition of the party also straddles competing and complementing narratives. Some PML-N pundits say Nawaz’s aggression is back as policy. Others maintain if that were so we would be witnessing more front-foot batting against the Judiciary and the Establishment. Come to think of it, when was the last time any PML-N leader uttered the term “farishtas” (angels)? The term referred to intelligence agencies that the PML-N leaders had blamed for facilitating Imran Khan’s ascent to power. That line of criticism has seemingly been shelved. The aggression is now aimed at the PTI and not at the Establishment or the Judiciary. The new PML-N narrative is neither Nawaz’s nor Shehbaz’s but a clever combination of the two.
3. This combination will be on display post-Eid. The budget session of parliament will witness a freshly-energised PML-N. Prepare for fireworks on the floor of the House and also on the streets. But if you are expecting countrywide agitation aimed at bringing down the PTI government, you may be in for disappointment. The Opposition knows where to draw a line.
4. This line in fact continues to sketch the contours of where the government and the Opposition stand today in reference to each other. The line has not moved much since the PTI came into power. All indications are that Rawalpindi is still twinning with Islamabad despite various disappointments and dashed expectations. Rawalpindi wants Islamabad to succeed against all odds, even if means restacking the odds to make them even. For now, Raiwind figures nowhere. Neither does Larkana.
5. What will it take for Raiwind or Larkana to start figuring in the larger scheme of things? Saner elements within the PML-N and the PPP know very well that if anyone has to adjust to realities, it is them. Both parties carry plenty of baggage with them and at some point most of that baggage will need to be off-loaded if they want to trek back to the summit. If the PTI fails, these parties may not be automatic alternatives. In the game of musical chairs, chairs do get removed every time the music stops.
6. June till November then is the crucial time for the government. PM Imran Khan has completely revamped his economic team in an attempt to get a grip on the unstable situation. The new team’s first test is barely two weeks away. The IMF-shaped budget will usher in those hard times we have all been bracing for. Five months is sufficient time after that to determine if the new team is showing results.
7. By November we should have a fair idea if Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh has initiated structural reforms that the government has been talking about. By then it would also be fairly clear if he has started fixing the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). By November we would know if FBR Chairman Shabbar Zaidi is succeeding in increasing revenues and fixing the FBR machinery. Five months is also sufficient time for Pakistanis to see if SBP Governor Reza Baqir has utilised his monetary policy tools to stabilise the economy; if the new Board of Investment Chairman has brought in new investors; and if Power Minister Omar Ayub has reduced the Circular Debt and controlled loadshedding. If indicators are positive, PM Khan can exhale with relief. If not, the system will start to overheat.
8. This is a quantifiable challenge. The government will need to produce numbers and data to convince Pakistanis and the world that the economy is responding favourably. The government will also need to endure the rigours of the IMF programme in these months while dealing with the political fallout of inflation, employment and crushing taxation. So far the PM’s team has failed to convincingly explain to the people why they have to endure these hardships. Translating economic policies into simple and easy- to-understand communication is not easy. But it is necessary. The government seems oblivious to it. This mistake could cost it dearly.
9. Then of course, there’s the matter relating to NAB Chairman Justice(retd) Javed Iqbal. So many things can go horribly wrong in so many ways on this issue. Why was the recording of the videos not detected earlier? Why were videos leaked to a TV channel whose owner was a member of the PM’s media team? Who had the video pulled off air? Uncertainty surrounding NAB has a direct bearing on the cases under process against key Opposition leaders. If the NAB Chairman fights the allegations, we could be looking at a long-drawn messy controversy in full view of the public. If he decides to step down to clear his name, a new appointment would be extremely difficult because the PM and the Leader of the Opposition have to agree to a name. What happens to NAB if there is no chairman? The courts may need to step in to provide an answer.
10. On the external front, the June-November period will also witness key developments for the government. An adverse FATF decision will upend many calculations and create severe economic and political problems. Narendra Modi may yet start to breathe fire while Afghanistan could take a decisive turn in terms of US withdrawal. The impact on us will be direct. All these fronts will test the limits of our strategic thinking. PM Khan will need all the strength and resolve he can muster to keep his place in the larger scheme of decision-making.
The government should buckle up. Winter is coming.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2019.