Friday, Dec 14, 2018 | Last Update : 03:21 AM IST

Build-up to Pak polls: Wild, woolly, wacky, maddening

Published : Mar 5, 2018, 5:50 am IST
Updated : Mar 5, 2018, 6:04 am IST

The legal vice Nawaz is in may not reverse itself even if Nawaz wins his war with the boys.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)
 Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)

So, the democratic project stumbles on, the Senate election reaffirming most of the questions and answering few. Now, it’s on to the big show, the general.

When it happens, how it happens, if it happens. The build-up to the general election will be wild and woolly and wacky and, probably, maddening. There are no better angels here, no statesmen, neither grace nor vision. Just small men fighting over a big prize.

That would be messy enough. But there’s a very Pakistani complication apparent. To apply the obscure to the very real, very confusing political mess Pakistanis are in, have a look at the five small men we have fighting over the big prize.

It’s really three individuals, Nawaz, Imran and Zardari, and two actors, the boys and the court. All of them want power, some already have it — some more than others — some are striving for it and some are just struggling to hang on.

From the outside, it’s apparent all have and are making significant errors. Why would Zardari preside over the collapse of the PPP outside its base in Sindh? What the hell is wrong with Imran?

How the heck does Nawaz think he’s going to win this fight? Why is the court imperilling its credibility? Why didn’t the boys figure out how to get rid of Nawaz before trying to get rid of him?

It’s nuts. Either they’re all nuts or the rest of us are all nuts for seeing what we’re seeing and being baffled by it. Or it could be both; a national malaise, the Pakistani condition.

Keep scratching away though and you’ll start to find that each of the five are doing things based on their misperceptions of the others and perceptions of themselves.

Start with the boys. They want Nawaz out. And the strategy so far has been to progressively squeeze him, not an outright decapitation. Harry and harass, thwart and block, irritate and provoke.

Steer Nawaz towards the exit, take him to the threshold and, once it becomes obvious he has no other option, let him take the final step himself, turning his back on politics for good. It’s a seemingly sensible strategy, except for a foundational assumption.

Can — will — Nawaz walk away from it all? The belief that he will is rooted in the belief that ultimately it is not politics that drives politicians. That all politicians are dilettantes or interlopers. That they’re in it for the money or the lifestyle. That there’s no hill they’re willing to die on.

That Nawaz can be chased off. Because the boys can’t be disabused of their belief of what all politicians are ultimately all about, they couldn’t flip the question around.

Can Nawaz afford to walk away from it all? If you believe this is your life’s work, that the political empire you’ve built is your legacy, that becoming the greatest political leader in generations from Punjab is your identity, then how do you walk away from it all?

It’s not a noble thing, it’s a possession thing. But just because Nawaz can’t walk away, doesn’t mean he knows what he’s doing. From the outside, it’s apparent that the legal vice he’s in is near inescapable to escape from. But you can see what Nawaz is thinking:

The legal vice isn’t about the law, it’s about politics. So if the legal vice can be applied by implausible judgements the legal vice can also be reversed by implausible judgements. It’s all politics, after all.

It may be Nawaz’s biggest mistake so far. But what the heck is up with Imran? He almost seems to want to make things more difficult for himself. Just a few sensible moves, a bit of application and he’d be the favourite by now.

Except he’s clearly not. Not only does he not appear to have a winning political strategy, it’s not clear he’s interested in one. Wanting to win in politics without a political strategy is crazy — crazy even by the standards of politics here. Or, if you’re Imran, it’s belief.

Belief that the prime ministership is his destiny. And the damn problem is you can see why he may believe that. Dragging a party of one to the party that can be number one is fairy dust, a story of near magic. If you’re Imran, why would you change now?

The PPP implosion under Zardari? Corrupt, incompetent, stubborn — or maybe, in his mind, crazy like a fox.

An eminently more plausible lesson from the history of politics here is that the boys will not be defeated, not that they eventually can.

If you’re Zardari and you believe that, it’s more irrational to try and keep the PPP alive nationally than to retreat to the base in Sindh, where no organised political opposition exists.

Crazy, corrupt or incompetent to you and me, to himself Zardari is the master survivor who understands the system and the percentages.

Finally, the court. Fear of the gavel means it’s the hardest — harder than the boys even — to talk about it openly.

Suffice to say, Nawaz may be making one, very big mistake. Where he sees an alliance between the court and the boys, it may be more an alignment of interests — for separate institutional reasons.

In squeezing Nawaz, the court may anger the N-League base and that anger may carry the party to an electoral victory. But the PML(N) base is 15 million voters; the country is 200.

The legal vice Nawaz is in may not reverse itself even if Nawaz wins his war with the boys. Onwards, to tumultuous continuity.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: nawaz sharif, imran khan