Pakistan’s opposition continues down the jalsa path. Big crowds, star speakers and hard-hitting speeches – their coming together has now taken political centre stage while the government has been reduced to little more than reactions galore as minister after spokesman takes to the mike in front of a bunch of journalists to attack the opposition. By now, it is hard to see if these talks are serving any purpose.
This is not the first time a government in Pakistan has behaved thus, despite the many, many previous moments when such behaviour has merely illustrated a government’s nervousness.
But let us give the Imran Khan government its due. Its jitters are not uncalled for – after all, it is aware that their sins of omission and commission in keeping a check on the prices of food have provided oxygen – and ears – to the opposition’s thunder.
This is the one issue which lends authenticity and mass appeal to the angry leadership’s argument that the selectors have brought gloom and suffering to the people. Without the strain of the ever-increasing food bills, the opposition leaders would simply sound like petulant children left out of the play. This is what makes the government nervous.
Along with the Pakistan government, its backbenchers too are skittish and angry for they have little to offer their voters and not many answers for the inflation. This has made the opposition relevant as it takes to the jalsa grounds.
A nervous government adds to their clout by talking less and less of the “naya” Pakistan it had promised and focused more and more on bashing and hounding those who once stood for “purana” Pakistan (though now even Nawaz Sharif is promising a “naya” Pakistan).
But in all this confusion, both the government and the opposition are helping each other. The rhetoric of Pakistan Muslim League (N) supremo Nawaz Sharif makes the government as relevant to the establishment as inflation makes the opposition relevant. Both the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) should be grateful to each other, if nothing else.
But the more important question right now is – what will the onslaught of the opposition achieve? Will it change anything or everything? Or will nothing change?
It is hard to say if it will be a transformative moment which will usher in great change. Had we not thought the same of 2007 only to have hopes dashed as the years passed? This time around, hopes and expectations are more tempered, with the experience of history.
This is not to say, however, that nothing will happen. As the more pragmatic among the political leadership say, something has to give. The government may not be sent packing or the establishment may not get so scared that it retreats from politics entirely but there will be some change, somewhere.
Some pressure on the opposition will ease. Some of the more ambitious plans for the future will be discarded and some space will be ceded. This is not beyond the realm of possibility, especially as it is not clear if the opposition is in the mood for more than a few jalsas at the moment. They may promise more but the “more” is so vague that it is hard to take it into consideration.
Peace with India
Now for Nawaz Sharif’s rhetoric, which has set many a tongue wagging. As an aside, it is interesting how his own bayania (narrative) about the civil-military relationship has evolved over the years. When he came to power, his focus appeared to be on making peace with India – the roundabout way to address the civil-military balance at home. By 2016 he had either given up on this route or realised its futility and moved on to highlighting the international context and the costs of Pakistan’s policies. “Dawn leaks” and the interview in which he spoke of Mumbai are cases in point.
Four years later, he is now positioning himself as the real patriot who understands Pakistan’s security needs but is unwilling to allow any unconstitutional intervention in politics. Hence, he is now constantly trying to distinguish between the institution and its few top decision-makers, who he is identifying as the culprits. It is as if he has realised that this is a battle to be fought domestically – “ghar ki baat” and all that.
However, it is hard to say if he realises that such efforts to cause fissures within institutions go only so far – when push comes to shove, the larger institutional interests may just force the individuals to opt for circumspection, discretion and an effort to stay away from controversy.
At best, an individual or two will be shuffled here and there, as we saw in 2007 and to a lesser extent in February of this year. The larger policy direction may not necessarily change. If this is what happens this time around, it remains to be seen if Sharif senior – and his supporters – is willing to see this as enough.
It is hard to make predictions, which is journalistically unsound as well. But even so, soon into the opposition’s campaign, it would be unfair to not point out the two winners of this latest round of shadow boxing. First is the chief minister of Punjab, Usman Buzdar. The ruckus kicked up by the opposition has once again diverted attention and debate from his lacklustre way of running Punjab.
Indeed, everyone had forgotten that he was the main bone of contention between Khan and his party and Khan and his supporters. And on the other side of the divide, Capt Safdar has also surely gotten the cat’s crown and has inched his way closer to the leadership circles of the Noon, thanks to the shenanigans, his own and others’, in Karachi.
Whether he can find other ladders to climb in the days to come may be uncertain but he has become a “somebody” in the party. The gains, sometimes, of those on the sidelines of the big fights are stories in themselves.
This article first appeared in Dawn.