No reprieve

No reprieve
Shibli Faraz, the PTI spokesman, has lost the script. He cried himself hoarse defending the secret vote of “conscience” by opposition senators that enabled the government to defeat the PDM’s vote of “no-confidence” against Sajid Sanjrani, the Senate Chairman, a few months ago. Now he is crying foul when the boot is on the other foot in the case of Yusuf Raza Gilani’s election to the Senate when some PTI MNAs voted secretly against their party’s candidate Hafeez Sheikh. “Conscience” has been replaced by “corruption”, and “secret” ballot by “open” ballot. Indeed, Mr Faraz has suddenly discovered the virtues of blatant political opportunism when he says the government will use “all methods” to defeat the opposition like it did the government. In another ironic twist to this sordid electoral tale, he has woken up to own his illustrious father’s moral high ground. “My father would have disinherited me if I had acted like Yusuf Raza Gilani’s son”, he says self-righteously, never mind the countless times the opposition and independent media have accused him of dishonouring Ahmed Faraz’s life-long, progressive, ant-Establishment stance by becoming His Master’s Voice!

Imran Khan is no better. He says he knows the names of the MNAs who sold their votes to Asif Zardari. But, far from taking action against them for corruption, he has forgiven them their “conscientious” indiscretion and welcomed them back into the fold so that they could give him a vote of confidence in the National Assembly. Sheikh Rashid, the Pindi Punter, says Imran Khan knows their names and will take action, but Fawad Chaudhry, the Soldier of Fortune, says his leader doesn’t, so no action can be taken against them. The PTI’s stance in the sting operation against Ali Haider Gilani is another case in point. The PTI has petitioned the ECP to disqualify both Gilani Sr and Jr for corrupt practices because they were trying to buy votes, but let the PTI MNAs off the hook for trying to sell their votes, a plea that has been swiftly rejected by the ECP. Indeed, the ECP was deemed independent by Imran Khan when it dragged its feet for five years and didn’t disqualify him in the Foreign Funding Case but has suddenly become the object of a blistering attack for upholding the Constitution regarding secret balloting in the Senate elections as advised by the Supreme Court of Pakistan!

In this murky battle royale, the PDM is clearly being played by the Miltablishment. The “deal” or “understanding” was that it would remain “neutral” in the current struggle between the PDM and PTI so long as PDM leaders didn’t attack it or its leaders by name. Until the by-elections the PDM kept its word even when there was suspicion that the Miltablishment hadn’t. But now the PDM is saying it has “evidence” of Miltablishment interference in the forthcoming elections to the Senate Chairman and Deputy Chairman on Friday 12th March. Should the PDM candidates be defeated with 53 votes in their bag as opposed to 47 by the PTI & Co, we can be sure that the chambers will resound with anti-Miltablishment sentiments all over again. The Miltablishment betrayed Shahbaz Sharif and had him sidelined in the PMLN. Now it will be accused of betraying Asif Zardari and sidelining him in the PDM. Therefore, under the circumstances, the anti-Miltablishment “narrative” of Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazal ur Rahman is poised to re-emerge stronger than ever before and we can be sure that they will marshal their forces to create more instability to destablise the PTI government.

There are two serious consequences of the Miltablishment’s stubborn refusal to rethink options. By sticking like glue to Imran Khan’s incompetent and corrupt government, it has wittingly strayed into the firing line of a majority of Pakistanis, especially in its home base of Punjab, who are increasingly sick and tired of the PTI. The suspicion that personal ambitions have undermined institutional interests is also inescapable. That is why when Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazal ur Rahman target both individuals and institutions by name they are assured of a sympathetic echo in society at large. This developing trend doesn’t augur well for state and society.

The second serious consequence of the Miltablishment’s misplaced concreteness is on the economy. Political instability leads to economic uncertainty which undermines  investment and growth. Despite tall and constant claims of a “recovery” in the offing, the facts are worrying. Exports are stagnant despite a massive devaluation. Revenues are below targets second year running. Debt is crippling the budget. The IMF is back, with rising inflation, joblessness and interest rates. Indeed, the gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis by the PTI government – which is preoccupied with saving its political skin – as evidenced by a third spike in infections and new lockdowns of schools and businesses, and distribution of vaccines at snail’s pace, has found mention in the latest forecast by the IMF as an additional factor fueling insecurity and instability, compelling it to forecast a growth of only 1.1% in FY21. The wild swings in the stock market reflect this instability and are not conducive to confidence in the economy.

In the midst of all this, the Miltablishment has to contend with a significant resurgence of terrorism and pressure from America to get the Taliban to “do more” to facilitate a US pullout from Kabul without leaving the Ghani administration in the lurch. The Miltablishment’s angst is underscored by America’s insistence on bringing India into the Afghan loop while dangling the FATF sword over Islamabad.

All these domestic and external pressures on economy and politics are going to increase manifold in the coming months. At times like these, a national consensus and political stability is the need of the hour. Instead, we have running battles between an unpopular government and a strident opposition and between this opposition and an increasingly discredited Miltablishment. If the economy had been strong, we would have weathered such political storms. But now the economy is itself a prisoner of politics. Thus without changing the political dialectic there will be no reprieve.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.