Analysis Sharif’s house of cards The protest season never ends in Pakistan. Two years after the first set of dharnas rocked the PML-N government in summer 2014, the enfant terrible of politics, Imran Khan, is gearing up for another long march. Allama Tahirul Qadri is also back, promising revenge for the Model Town firing, for which ostensibly he had launched the 2014 dharna also, abandoning it later for a Canadian winter.
While the maulana is hardly a threat despite his street cred, the hostile mood of the PTI and erstwhile ally, PPP, can’t be ignored.
The former has announced a series of protest rallies from Aug 7 onwards to “draw attention to corruption” says party spokesman Naeemul Haq.
Earlier on Wednesday, Khan at his press conference had been careful with his plans and predictions. He announced a rally from Peshawar to Attock and one from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, after which he promised to “head for Lahore”.
But there was no word on what Lahore would entail; he promised no dharnas, resignations or change.
The PPP is playing coy. Spokesman Farhatullah Babar says cryptically that the PPP will take the Panama Papers issue to “its logical conclusion”. However, a party leader from Punjab says that they have been told to finalise the party’s local-level positions by the end of August so that protests can be launched in September. He promises to match the PTI rally from rally, but hastens to add that his party doesn’t want martial law.
It is hard to tell if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is worried about these developments. As is the wont of those burdened with governing Pakistan, he too is juggling many problems – health woes, criticism of his children’s business acumen, electricity shortages, an angry opposition and a sulky military. The Americans, Afghans and the Indians are not too happy either.
Anyone confronted with this would be worried – should be worried.
But none of this makes for the uncertainty and pressure that was in the air in 2014.
The uncertainty back then was due to ignorance of what could happen if a mainstream political party resigned from parliament and sat outside in protest, for months on end. Surely, it would bring down the government, many predicted.
Adding to the doom and gloom was the military’s much publicised unhappiness with the PML-N government. It was a case of Sharif vs Sharif because of one Sharif’s hatred for Musharraf and love for Modi, feelings unshared by General Raheel Sharif.
Hence, the logic was that once Khan hit the streets in his hatred for Sharif, the second Sharif would dislodge the government in his hatred for Sharif. How exactly Sharif was going to manage this, in the absence of 58 2(b), never bothered the soothsayers. It was assumed that forcing a developing world prime minister to resign was as easy as it is in Great Britain. As a PTI leader put it then, “When there are so many people out on the roads, the government will have to bow.” There was more hope than logic at work.
But the dharna, tear gas, bloodshed and much defecation on Constitution Avenue wasn’t enough to convince Sharif and the exhausted protesters went home.
Since then, the soothsayers and the politicians [including Khan] have realised that a resignation requires far more.
This is the good news then for the government. Last time around, there were quite a few, last-minute meetings between the army chief and the dynamic duo of Chaudhry Nisar and Shahbaz Sharif, the prime minister gave an address to the nation on television [always a sign of panic in the taciturn Sharif] and innumerable stories suggesting that a deal had been struck between the protesters and the government.
Two years later, junior Sharif isn’t flying in for a rendezvous at GHQ, the prime minister hasn’t addressed the nation recently and only trusted trouble shooter Ishaq Dar has been tasked to talk to the opposition. And while there are stories about a ‘deal’ with the PPP – the only thing the PML-N is worried about is a PPP-PTI alliance – they are based on anonymous sources. While the PTI confirms a meeting to re-discuss the ToRs on Aug 9, PPP’s Farhatullah Babar declared emphatically on Thursday evening that the government was yet to reach out to his party.
The chastised Khan too isn’t calling for a third umpire, threatening en masse resignations and a long stay on Constitution Avenue.
Even he doesn’t believe that his protests can dislodge the prime minister, even if he continues to predict elections.
During a casual talk with journalists earlier in the summer, he did claim that he had told his party “to prepare for an election next year”, forcing the pale Jehangir Tareen, sitting by his side, to turn even paler. It appeared to be one of Khan’s trademark soundbytes, signifying little.
If one credits Khan with sense, he must have known in 2014 that the resignation would only come if Sharif’s hand was forced by the military. He was hoping for an intervention a la General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani during the 2009 march but he failed to realise Kayani acted to maintain the political status quo [in the centre and in Punjab].
This is one reason Raheel Sharif may have baulked at mediation during the 2014 dharna when Khan refused to settle for anything less than a resignation. That plus the outcry at the general’s intervention sent him back to GHQ and the tweets offering mediation were soon forgotten.
Indeed, the military is not in the mood for political adventures. If this was hard to buy for many in 2014, it is evident now.
But it’s not enough to ensure that Nawaz Sharif is sleeping well at night.
Considerable muck has been thrown up by the Panama scandal, some of which will stick. If the PPP lasted five years only to emerge with an image of corruption and mis-governance, the opposition’s agitation will strengthen the perception of the Sharif family being a business house that uses power to add to its riches.
Coupled with its [so far] failure to fix electricity, the collapse of the agriculture sector and an election in two years, is cause for worry.
The lengthy meetings on power projects and the decision to call a meeting of the parliamentary party of the N League after two years testifies to this.
The PML-N is now in the place the PPP was post memogate. Both parties came to power with delusions of grandeur and misplaced sense of their ability to ignore the military. Both picked fights with Pindi and ignored the opposition [the PPP pooh-poohed the movement for the judiciary’s restoration and the N ignored the PTI’s demand to investigate rigging in four constituencies].
Both were then confronted with a march from Lahore to Islamabad which threatened to overthrow the government and emerged from the crisis, more docile and chastened. Then followed a period of military dominance and another crisis [memogate and Panama Papers leaks, respectively].
The PML-N may survive the new phase as the PPP did memogate, only to realise that while the civil-military skirmishes may test an elected government’s nerves and establish democratic credentials, they don’t win votes in elections. And however strong the PML-N’s domination of Punjab, it will continue to look over its shoulder till the elections take place.