Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab province. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood

From Day 1 of the current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) regime, it was written on the wall that the engineered political discourse that brought Imran Khan and his party to power would not be sustainable for very long. Only someone incapable of understanding political dynamics and unaware of the inability of the PTI to govern could have thought that Khan would not eventually shoot himself or his backers in the foot. So what was inevitable from Day 1 is now gradually being recognized by the powers that be, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is trying to finalize a deal with the military establishment to retake control of the government.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing a tough challenge in the form of a new PML-N that instead of locking horns with the establishment has compromised on its ideology and now wants to return to power through an in-house change or a midterm election. The distance between the PML-N and the invisible forces is gradually diminishing, and as a result, one after another jailed party stalwarts are being granted bail by the same courts that just a few weeks back were reluctant to release them.

Recently Hamza Shahbaz, the son of PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif, was granted bail in the Ramzan Sugar Mills corruption case, and if insiders are correct, very soon former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and another PML-N stalwart, Ahsan Iqbal, will also be released.

The first target of the PML-N was to get out of the dead-end street where both Khan and his backers were teaching the party a lesson for creating an anti-establishment narrative in the province of Punjab, and many top party officials were booked under dubious circumstances. Former finance minister Ishaq Dar was one of the PML-N leaders who were targeted for standing by the party in the time of crisis. Dar’s property was confiscated by the government in a case that has no grounds, as any sane person can see that he was targeted for not only opposing non-productive expenses in the government budget, but also trying to end the hegemony of the establishment over the finances and resources of the country.

Just recently the Lahore High Court stopped the government from auctioning Dar’s property. Dar still has no regrets for taking a stance that according to him was for the betterment of the country.

On many occasions talking to this correspondent from London, he never discussed his financial losses due to the fabricated cases lodged against him by PTI and its backers, nor has he spoken of the character-assassination campaign against him. In fact, he seems solely concerned with the deteriorating economy, saying that it is painful to watch the demise of an economy he once rescued and then through hard work not only strengthened it but also was able to make it flourish. But for the cult PTI vote bank, Dar remains an absconder who kept the economy ticking through artificial measures.

However, the reality is that if it were possible, PTI would never have hesitated to adopt gimmicks and artificial measures to boost the ailing economy. This was also the case with former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who is considered to be close to Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz and who is languishing in jail for a crime he never committed. So perhaps Sharif made a calculated move on the power chessboard by backing General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s extension as Chief of Army Staff unconditionally and secured his party’s future.

However, the question arises as to why Sharif just gave up at a time when it was very clear that PTI’s backers were not able to make the rigged political discourse work, and it might have taken just a few more months before the establishment agreed to the demand for fresh elections. Now that Sharif has surrendered and presented his younger brother Shahbaz as a bad cop, it has been continuously propagated by the PML-N leadership that Nawaz was not interested in a deal and it was Shahbaz who persuaded him to deal with the invisible forces.

But anyone who knows the structure of the PML-N and the Sharif clan knows that it has always been the elder Sharif who decides the political narrative of the party. Maryam may not always have agreed with her father’s decisions, but that is how the PML-N works, and without Nawaz Sharif’s approval Shahbaz could not make any decision or deal on his own. So Nawaz may have strengthened his position on the power board, but as far as political legitimacy and democratic credentials are concerned he has lost the battle.

The question now is whether Imran Khan will remain in power or Nawaz Sharif or Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party will come to power again. And that leads to a more important question of who will be ready to take responsibility for the failure of the “New Pakistan” project and will be ready to work to revive the economy.

Even Ishaq Dar would not be able to fix the economy within months or even a year, regardless of who is in government, be it PML-N, PPP or a coalition. Then the other problem is the wish of the invisible forces to repeal the 18th Amendment of the constitution, as it not only gives autonomy to the provinces but also deprives the central government of a lucrative budget. The economic turmoil means that the military establishment will need resources to keep its hegemony intact, and it might impose a condition whereby the new government will change how federal funds are allocated to the provinces and again give the control of the budget and resources of the provinces to the central administration. This could result in a deadlock, as neither the PML-N or PPP will be interested in committing political suicide by agreeing to repeal or change the provisions of the 18th amendment.

So this gives Khan a little room for maneuver. However, the question remains: Is he willing to set aside his narcissistic attitude and state of hallucination where he still thinks of himself as a celebrity sportsman who is not answerable to anyone even though he is a prime minister now therefore answerable to parliament and the masses?

In any case, change in some form is inevitable, as the architects of the current political discourse desperately need a new public face and some economic stability to continue their hegemony in state affairs. Whether Imran Khan will be able to survive miraculously or Sharif’s PML-N with its now-compromised narrative will lead the next government in a few months’ time remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however: Whoever forms the next government will have to take dictation from the powers that be, and the only difference will be a new set of political puppets who have better skill and experience than PTI in running the controlled democracy.

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