For all his disruptiveness, Imran has not yet proved to be the great destroyer he is feared to be.
And there it is. The slightest of course corrections. Avoiding chaos for now; salvaging stability, for now. It is the familiar — sometimes, great — Pakistani escape.
How do they do it?
Between the ever-present fear of the top blowing off or the bottom falling away, the Pakistan project has usually stumbled on. Maddening, scary, infuriating, depressing — or maybe just lucky.
But enough merciful moments and near mea culpas to generally hold the whole enterprise together.
This time, it’s been a veritable Christmas miracle or perhaps the ghost of Jinnah guiding us back from the edge: four slight adjustments by four men who hold great sway over our political fate.
Traceable in the adjustments are internal — institutional — compulsions that triggered an external backlash which helped forced the correction.
Start with the chief.
The horror in Faizabad was a problem that wasn’t going away. It’s one thing for a government to be mauled by the boys. It’s another to be mauled by a bunch of psychopaths.
It’s something else altogether for a mauling to be perceived as a combination of the two. The Faizabad denouement was like the world’s nightmare of Pakistan coming to horrible life.
The cost of protecting the institution from an incendiary conversation turned out to be a conversation in hostile and questioning quarters about what the real problem in Pakistan may be.
And it was threatening to get ugly.
The mainstreaming conversation was being pulled in disturbing directions that turned questions on their heads. Who was controlling whom; was the mainstream being extremised; where would this end?
Something had to be done. The measure chosen has been spun as bold and courageous, but it is not. It was the least of the options available.
The Senate is docile, the Senate is marginalised and the Senate is a minority-ruled house. It was the safest, softest of options available.
Enough to get the job done — to suck the poison hanging in the air post-Faizabad — without really making any concession. Disturbing questions countered by amenable optics.
On to the other chief.
His is a house divided. That’s just a juridical fact. Try reconciling the original three disqualifiers with the final five disqualifiers with the recent half-disqualification, half-not — and, well, you can’t.
It’s a hot mess.
If you forget what the chief said and think about what it meant, a warning shot has been fired. Not necessarily in the direction of detractors but across the bow of the court.
For now, the big decisions are out of the way. But as the election nears, the petitions will pile up again. A court that is willing to wade into political waters is a court that will get sucked in deeper.
Candidates and their aunts will rush to get opponent candidates disqualified on pretext after pretext. It’s a familiar pre-election ritual, but with added significance this time round because of recent goings-on.
The chief’s message can interpretatively be flipped on its head. Scolding detractors for their unhinged criticisms of the court is also a reminder to the rest of the court of the dangers of populism.
The judicial vehicle cannot carry the republic. The more it mediates in the political arena, the more stress it will come under. This chief will carry us past an election next August and into December.
By that time, the election should be a settled result. If a few more lectures have to be suffered before then, but the veiled message gets through — so be it.
On to Nawaz.
This business of clinging on has been a waste of time. The preferable path has long been apparent. If Nawaz wanted to lead one last campaign, he could have it. But then instal Shahbaz immediately after.
A fourth-term, 10-consecutive-year PM was and is a ridiculous idea. It almost invites destabilisation and mayhem. And since the disqualification, another term for Nawaz could be collective political suicide.
But if Nawaz leads the campaign, Shahbaz is the PM candidate and the N-League wins, everyone will know the victory is really Nawaz’s. Enjoy the adulation, save everyone else the pain. What’s the point in trying again?
Maybe — maybe — Nawaz can force his back into public office. But the first day of a fourth term would mark the beginning of a countdown to a fourth ouster. The PML(N) may be Nawaz, but the PML(N) is also in the business of winning.
With Nawaz as the candidate, victory is possible but it could be short-lived. So why not give Shahbaz his shot and the party a real chance? Inexorable logic appears to be winning.
And finally: Imran.
For all his disruptiveness, Imran has not yet proved to be the great destroyer he is feared to be. Through the dharnas, jalsas, protests and petitions, he’s managed to foment uncertainty and confusion, but kept his eye on another election.
Since his disqualification survival, Imran has been relatively tame. The court may have complicated a coruscating response with the ouster of a close ally, but Imran has helped by not trying to do anything much or deeply controversial.
He’s even put some necessary distance between himself and the ousted ally, and stuck to his usual demands of early elections and sundry denunciations of Nawaz and the PML(N).
Good enough for now was Imran helpfully not making himself the centre of attention and wild controversy. He’s done that.
Four slight adjustments by four men who hold great sway over our political fate. Enough merciful moments and near mea culpas to avoid chaos and salvage stability, for now.
By arrangement with Dawn