We’re getting to the business end of the Holy Month – and it shows.
To start the week, our defence-cum-energy minister Khawaja Asif looked heavenward for help with loadshedding – an issue that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) said it had under control. Someone should look up the N’s election manifesto to check if divine intervention was a listed strategy. After apparently clearing circular debt, it has risen to Rs300 billion again. This spells trouble – especially considering that we’ve earmarked exactly Rs0 (nada, nil, sifar) in our current budget for circular debt. Or perhaps that too was a “typo” like our GDP growth figure.
That was only the start of (yet another) difficult week for the ruling party – with the principal opposition, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), finally deciding to show up. Asif Ali Zardari came out with a rare statement, criticizing the government for possibly the first time since completing his tenure as president. Politically, the criticism was innocuous, since it was regarding the government’s handling of Internally Displaced Persons.
But the mostly-MIA chief of the PPP (which is MIA in its own right) followed it up strongly the very next day with a statement that would have set off quite a few alarms by endorsing PTI’s stand on a vote audit of the 2013 General Elections. Possibly inspired by the month, the former president said that, “the heavens will not fall if votes are recounted.”
With the ruling party’s frontline arranged in purely PTI-centric formation, Mr Zardari’s assault would have come as a surprise – especially since the lack of interest shown on the vote audit matter by the PPP, which, despite its silence, is still the principal opposition, had emboldened the government’s policy of ignoring the PTI.
Imran Khan was surprised by it, and reciprocated by paying a backhanded compliment to the PPP by saying that even Mr Zardari’s reign was better than the Sharifs. It would have also surprised many political observers, too.
But it shouldn’t have. Whatever understanding the two parties have, the fact is that the PPP is falling behind in the relevance category. Of course, there are other considerations too. The rumblings of internal PPP strife were growing louder – and it mostly has to do with the party’s docile attitude towards the government. Something had to give, and it did (though it has more to do with the PPP being annoyed at the N for meddling in Sindh.)
Recall that it was former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of PPP who set off a maelstrom the previous week by disclosing that there was a deal, agreed to by both PPP and PML-N, to give former president Pervez Musharraf indemnity, and that incumbents were not honoring it.
Following Mr Gilani, Mr Musharraf’s former aide Maj-Gen (retd) Rashid Qureshi – whom I think I angered for life by once referring to him over the phone as “Brigadier Qureshi” many years ago – also confirmed the “understanding” in an interview to The Express Tribune on Monday. He said that PPP and PML-N were in touch with then President Musharraf not directly but through then Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvaiz Kayani. Even Jamshed Dasti did endorse this, saying that he actually witnessed the understanding as a member of the PPP.
The heat on the government seems to be rising regarding the Musharraf case, as it is with the vote audit. While they’re two different issues, the ruling party believes they’re one.
In a statement on Wednesday, Ahsan Iqbal openly linked the opposition’s increased belligerence to the government’s refusal to let Mr Musharraf off the hook – hence suggesting that the military establishment is behind the tumult.
There’s no way to tell if this is true, but the effort to ‘win hearts and minds’ seems to be in full flow. Prime Minister Sharif visited GHQ on Wednesday for a briefing on the military operation in North Waziristan (which he could easily have gotten in Islamabad) and for a photo-op at the martyrs’ memorial. He was accompanied by his entire gamut of top cabinet members.
Despite this, the buzz is that the military does not want to hold a parade on 14th August at Islamabad’s D-Chowk at the government’s request (as was being planned last week). Ostensibly, the plan was to stymie the PTI “Tsunami March” to Islamabad on the same day by putting the Army in the front. Now there’s apparently been a move to Plan-B.
The prime minister, in keeping with the week’s theme of religiosity, flew to Saudi Arabia on Sunday. On the face of it, the trip is an annual thing. Mr Sharif spends the last few days of the Holy Month in the holy lands. But this time, word has it that he’ll be holding some meetings on the side, too – with mutual friends of Aabpara’s top brass. These friends will be asked to urge Aabpara to bury the hatchet. Note that it is Aabpara, not GHQ, that the ruling party feels needs convincing. The belief here is that perceived differences between the government and the brass is emboldening the opposition, more specifically Imran Khan.
If there’s no avoiding the “tsunami,” there’s Plan C. The ruling party could accept Imran Khan’s vote audit demand, and hope that by starting with the seats that PTI won (NA-1 onwards) enough dirt and dust will be kicked up for the entire process to be abandoned. That’s a pretty big wager.
But it’s the Holy Month, and throwing up a prayer can’t be the worst of ideas.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 21st, 2014.