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Sharif-Army face-off was long overdue

Published : May 1, 2017, 12:48 am IST
Updated : May 1, 2017, 12:48 am IST

Five years can be a lifetime in politics, but it’s too short to make folks forget the horrors of government by Zardari.

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

Blame Panama. A delayed verdict disrupted our crisis cycle. Instead of a regular dose of crisis, we got a lengthy wait. Nothing, nothing, nothing and then — kaboom.

It’s been quite a week. Multiple crises, many players, but one man at the centre of it all: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He’s learning that victory can be sour and the rest of us are learning that a political winner can be a policy loser.

First, the politics. All three of them were in campaign mode this week: Asif Ali Zardari, Imran Khan and Mr Sharif, the three who hold the keys to the next Parliament. (Demand as Mr Zardari and Mr Khan did for Mr Sharif to exit, it was obvious neither of them really believes an early election is on the cards. Yesterday, Mr Sharif confirmed that.)

Mr Zardari’s strategy is the easiest to discern — and the weakest. Batter Mr Sharif in speeches and cut deals to assemble blocs of votes via the constituency-type candidate. It won’t get him very far. The PPP will try to regain some seats in old stamping grounds in south Punjab and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but the party has an obvious, twin problem: Mr Zardari and KP.

Five years can be a lifetime in politics, but it’s too short to make folks forget the horrors of government by Mr Zardari. And even if folks were willing to forget, they can’t because of Sindh. Sindh, sinned, never again. And even if folks were willing to give the PPP another shot, there’s the permanent Karachi operation to scuttle the party’s national ambitions. A few well-timed arrests and some middle-of-the-night messengers to favourably inclined candidates would stop any PPP momentum. On to Mr Khan. Master of drawing attention to himself and his message, he was at it again this week. Folks were talking about Mr Khan, folks were talking about bribery and corruption, and folks were wondering about the Sharifs again.

In a week in which the N-League could have further limited the damage from the Panama verdict, Mr Khan produced another sensational claim that sucked all the political oxygen towards the PTI. But the Friday speech revealed a problem: Mr Khan is still one-dimensional.

Go, Mr Sharif, go; resignation and corruption — it does not add up to stellar political maths. Mr Khan is launching an election campaign by demanding Mr Sharif resign — an implicit acknowledgment of PTI failure. Mr Sharif isn’t going to resign. For the PTI core, that’s an admirable sign of principles and consistency. For everyone outside, it’s a sign of a politician who doesn’t know how to get what he wants.

Elections are forward-looking; Mr Khan is turning everyone’s gaze backwards. It’s not a good start for the PTI. And then there’s Mr Sharif. The shots aimed at Mr Khan will delight the base, but the electoral strategy is conventional and time-tested: a combination of delivering reasonably on promises and patronage politics.

Electricity is critical, but the week also illuminated a political reality: the voter’s desire to get more electricity is greater than his desire to punish a government for not getting it to him sooner.

See how as the N-League frantically pumped more megawatts into the system, the political unrest disappeared. Give him electricity in adequate and regular quantities before election day and the voter won’t punish you. Patronage too has a different rhythm. The voter dependent on patronage isn’t stupid enough to think that it will flow to them consistently and throughout a government’s term. There’s always a surge around election time and the trick, for a political party, is make sure it doesn’t drop to unacceptable levels during a government’s term. Here, the N-League is facing a bit of a struggle: agriculture and small business in Punjab have been hurting. But you’re only as vulnerable as your enemy makes you. The PTI’s single-issue politics doesn’t exactly do much to expose the N-League’s patronage trouble and the N-League has a year to pump patronage into the system. PPP starting as an also-ran; PTI tearing out of the gates, but with suspect voter enthusiasm; and the N-League juggernaut having its fate in its own hands. But for all the favourable political winds, the N-League is strangely engulfed in crisis.

Two mistakes captured the problem: the secret Indian meeting and trying to rid itself of an eight-month-old headache quietly over the weekend. Both provoked an instant and fierce response and exposed a critical, though familiar, mistake by Mr Sharif and the N-League: they thought their job was done with the appointment. Having navigated a tricky Raheel exit and installed a chief very different in style, the N-League seems to have switched off. Instead of opening a dialogue with a chief yet to figure out what he wanted to do and what the institution he leads will let him do, the N-League let the new guys work on their own with their own — an intra-institutional learning curve guaranteed to produce suspicion of civilians. Five months later, Mr Sharif is not just locked out of policy, but is again being reminded where his place is. It ain’t pretty. Then again, it never is.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: nawaz sharif, asif ali zardari, imran khan, panama case