Who will bell the cat?

Who will bell the cat?
Mariam Aurangzeb, the information minister of the new PDM government, has admitted that this government intends to stay the full course for general elections late next year. This settles the issue between the two Sharif brothers.

Nawaz Sharif wanted swift elections for two reasons: first, the polls were likely to yield pro-PMLN and anti-PTI results because of the former’s rapprochement with the Miltablishment and PMLN’s track record of being “doers”, compared to the latter’s dismal misgovernance and estrangement from the same power-brokers; second, an economic crisis that was forecast to deepen in the middle term, alienate the new government from the people and possibly revive the PTI.

But Shehbaz Sharif and Asif Zardari had their way because they thought they could use the rehabilitated power-platform to extend their outreach to the voter via patronage to the “electables”, thereby downsizing the PTI. Therefore, their argument went, the longevity of this PDM government was critical to winning the elections next year.

The Shehbaz Sharif government, unfortunately, is still flapping about its strategy. It hasn’t decided how to tackle Imran Khan’s popular narrative of “chor, imported government” that appeals to a section of the nationalist urban middle class, either by counterposing an equally potent narrative of its own or by successfully propagating big convincing holes in his. The PDM hasn’t taken a position on Imran Khan’s tactics either -- should it give him a clean hand to organize his destabilizing dharnas and protests or should it take pre-emptive steps to halt him in his tracks? How should it counter his highly effective social media campaign that is heaping passionate hostility against the new government? Indeed, what sort of counter-narrative should it build to capture the imagination and votes of those who don’t buy into Khan’s? Should it focus on short term economic palliatives to deny Imran Khan any popular peg on which to hang peoples’ grievances or should it buckle down to a full-fledged IMF austerity program that is bound to aggravate peoples plight and create unrest? How should it keep its alliance partners in line so that the boat isn’t rocked or the dispensation mocked? What sort of legal and electoral reforms are to be carried out and what is the time frame for this exercise? And so on.

On the other hand, Imran Khan has a definite strategy going forward. He wants to force early elections because he believes his chances have been revived by three factors. First, he has successfully put the Miltablishment on the back foot by whipping up a backlash from its rank and file against the “neutrality” that led to his ouster. An overwhelming majority of middle-class business, bureaucracy and professional classes and Miltablishment “families”, serving and retired, are with him and against the stale dynastic families and leaders of the PDM – the father-son combo is a red rag to these bulls. This means the new government should not expect any positive support from the Miltablishment if and when it gets into serious administrative or financial trouble. Second, he has besieged the Judiciary and Election Commission of Pakistan to ensure that they don’t take any quick decisions against his interests. Continuing delays in concluding the Foreign Funding case and breaking the constitutional logjam created by the PTI President of Pakistan have stalled the formation of the Punjab government and crippled law making by the federal cabinet. Third, he is poised to seriously distract the new government from its main task of stabilizing the economy and providing good governance. His supporters are urban, young, passionate, ready to launch sit-ins, sieges, dharnas and long marches. A politico-constitutional crisis in which a couple of coalition partners pull out – with or without a wink from the Miltablishment under pressure -- could topple the government and trigger new elections.

Imran Khan’s strategy goes beyond compelling an early election. If he wins, he will continue on the path of demolishing democratic rules, traditions and laws to entrench himself as a fascist dictator. If he loses, he will challenge the results by the very agitational means and methods he is using today to destabilise and delegitimize the current dispensation. So unless a way is found to counter his narrative and clip his popular base to manageable proportions and put the genie back in the bottle, one should not expect stability and certainty ahead.

The recent happenings in the Masjid i Nabvi should be an eye-opener both for the PDM and Establishment. It shows the extent to which Imran Khan will go to extend his narrative – “imported chor government” – and will reinforce it by continuous propaganda instead of defending it when it is demonstrably false. The stunning silence of his supporters in face of evidence of conspiracy by PTI stalwarts led by Sheikh Rashid suggests that a counter-religious blast could prove effective in these circumstances. But none is forthcoming from the PDM. Instead, the Tehreek in Labiaq Pakistan has condemned Shehbaz Sharif’s attempt to woo the European community and explained this dimension of PDM foreign policy as a peg in the “popular” reaction against the “imported government” in the Masjid i Nabvi.

Suddenly, the PTI and its middle class supporters have latched on to a demand for immediate elections as the only way out of the crisis of state and society. This is ironic considering that only a month ago they were insisting that the PTI government should have been allowed to complete its term in the larger interest of “democracy” while the PDM was insisting on exactly the opposite. Interestingly, however, the PTI was mainly concerned about ensuring Miltablishment support (because it lacked the voter strength needed to win) and the PDM was interested in Miltablishment neutrality whenever the elections were held (because they had the “electables” with them). Demography also favours the PDM.

Here's the rub. The middle class Miltablishment rank and file continues to romance the cult of the clean hero in Imran Khan even as its decision-making leadership worries about the consequences of his misgovernance for state and society. Come November, a change in its leadership could either reinforce this trend or reverse it, with serious implications either way. That is why the PTI wants a chance to get back into office and the PDM wants to cling to it.

There is one counter-narrative that might yield dividends for the Miltablishment and PDM. This is related to the dire consequences for state and society -- especially the middle classes that are critically dependent on the state of the economy for their security and status -- of a return to the disastrous paradigm of Imran Khan. Who will bell the cat?

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.