Flux in politics is a norm in this beleaguered country. Last week, in this air of normal uncertainty, everyone started looking at the crisis in Balochistan as something out of the ordinary, engineered from ‘above’, a threat to the system. The dissolution of one assembly leading to others would lead to postponement of Senate election and then general election and so on, it was clearly thought and stated.
The blast near the Balochistan Assembly after the chief minister’s resignation that killed five people, followed by the merciless rape and murder of a minor girl in Kasur, and the inexplicable abduction attempt of a journalist in the capital came as temporary asides that are unlikely to disturb the hazy business-as-usual of politics.
The unsteady status quo shall prevail after the customary moment of protest on Kasur and the compulsive silence on the journalist’s attempted abduction. Admittedly, on some issues like in the relations with the US, all political players, civil or military, appear to be on the same page.
It’s an election year after all. All parties, despite distracting news like the third marriage of the leader of the government-in-waiting, are in election mode. The public meeting in Kot Momin is pitched against the one in Chakwal to tally the numbers, and analysts can’t be at fault for thinking the election result in Punjab will determine the future course of politics.
With alliances being shaped and re-drawn, friends parting ways, enemies getting cozy with each other, and progressives allying with conservatives, journalists and analysts too are weighing their options. Nusrat Javeed, columnist and an astute observer of politics, thinks, “Short of martial law, there is no way elections are going to be postponed”.
According to him, all options must correspond with the constitutional scheme. “Even the judiciary could not have done anything in the absence of Article 62. Holding of election is obligatory under the constitution,” he says.
Senator Pervaiz Rashid, a close aide of Nawaz Sharif and a PML-N leader, points at “unseen hands” that are responsible for the current state of uncertainty. “Our government was working alright in Balochistan. This sudden no-confidence move raises questions about a possible disruption in the Senate election.”
Rashid thinks it is not normal “because the CM was working without any serious trouble for the past two years. People can see the improved situation of development in Balochistan as compared to the previous Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) regime”.
Hamid Mir, a senior journalist, disagrees with Rashid. “The grouping and differences within the PML-N MPAs have been going on for the last two years. Actually, no group or party has enough numbers to form a government [alone].”
Recalling history, Mir says the PML-N had also conspired against Akhtar Mengal “when he was the chief minister in 1998”. But, “the developments in Balochistan could affect the Senate elections due in March this year.”
Javeed does not buy the argument. “I don’t think the Balochistan Assembly will be dissolved. The new chief minister would be sworn in. In Balochistan, only three MPAs get to elect one Senator. Why would they want to lose this chance? The sardars ganged up against Zehri only because he did not give them attention.”
Qamar Zaman Kaira, a senior leader of the PPP that has joined the seven-party alliance of Tahir-ul-Qadri against the PML-N, also thinks the Senate election will be held in time. “Even if one assembly is not there, the elections will still be held. The chairman can be elected later.”
When asked why has the PPP joined Tahir-ul-Qadri who has the reputation of attempting to shake the system, Kaira replies: “We haven’t made an alliance with Qadri or Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). We are only supporting him in his protest against the murder of 14 and injuring of 80 people, especially after the Baqir Najfi report.”
Besides, “Tahir-ul-Qadri claims he is protesting peacefully, staying within the scope of law and constitution, and we accept his stance”.
So how is the PML-N responding to these challenges? If Nawaz Sharif has handed over the mantle of premiership to the younger brother and everything is sorted out between the brothers, why this aggressive tone at public meetings? Rashid says the recent by-election in Chakwal is a good measure of the party’s popularity. “We still rule people’s hearts; they still vote for us and we will prove this in the next general elections. However, the recent developments raise many questions as to why the PML-N is being sidelined.”
Javeed thinks that if Pervaiz Rashid keeps saying that Shahbaz Sharif is the next candidate for prime minister, it means this is what Nawaz Sharif wants [since Rashid is believed to be a Nawaz man]. But Rashid sounds uncertain. “I cannot say anything about making Shahbaz Sharif a candidate of prime ministership yet. These things will be decided in their own time.”
Mir brings in the Maryam factor. “Though Shahbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz do not speak against each other, their supporters in the background say it all. Shahbaz may be a choice for Nawaz Sharif but his daughter does not want this happening.”
In Javeed’s view, Punjab is crucial for the PML-N. Nawaz Sharif is already out. “If they get a strong mandate in the next election, Shahbaz Sharif will come as the prime minister. If not, they will retain Shahbaz in Punjab and keep another person in centre as the PM.”
He adds that the current situation — Nawaz out, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi at the centre, and Shahbaz in Punjab — “suits the establishment”.
Why then is the former prime minister addressing public meetings, castigating the judiciary for giving a verdict against him? Javeed thinks the threat on Nawaz still looms, and this is a survival strategy. “Besides, in every constituency [in Punjab], there are 15 to 20,000 voters who think that Nawaz Sharif has been wronged. He wants to reach out to them and win the elections because if the PML-N forms government in the centre and Punjab, it will be difficult to put him in Adiala Jail. It also suits the electables to stay with PML-N.”
Kaira agrees the PML-N and the PTI have got most of the electables. “It is indeed a difficult situation. The challenges facing the country are huge. But we are in the second phase of our reorganisation and reaching out to the people.”
As Tahir-ul-Qadri of PAT announced a country-wide movement against the PML-N flanked by PTI on one side and PPP on the other, Khadim Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labaik bagged 16,000 votes in the Chakwal by-election, the Sialvis are touted as some form of threat to the PML-N, the PTI has made electoral alliance with Samiul Haq, the political landscape appears ideologically uniform.
Meanwhile, the parties that claim to be more progressive and liberal and the message they are trying to send across fail to resonate with the people. The demands of realpolitik are such that power stays divided between different shades of the right.