Miltablishment blues

By Najam Sethi

In a defensive move, the PPP and PMLN have finally joined hands to fend off the blistering attacks of the PTI. Should the political environment change, they are quite capable of switching to offensive mode and bringing the PTI government down. Consider.

The estrangement of Asif Zardari from Nawaz Sharif began when the PMLN government authorized the Miltablishment to launch anti-terrorist operations in Sindh some years ago. The Rangers proceeded to “establish” a link between the proceeds of corruption and the financing of terrorism and went after a clutch of senior PPP leaders and government functionaries, including some very close to Mr Zardari. Payback time arrived when, following Panamagate, the Miltablishment went after Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari joined the stinging snipers against him. If Mr Sharif failed to discern the divide-and-rule policy of the Miltablishment earlier, Mr Zardari fell victim to the same tactics later. The sole beneficiary of these mutual follies, of course, was Imran Khan’s PTI which has been propelled into office in Lahore and Islamabad.

Now the PTI has made a grave error. It has mistaken the crusade for accountability, a great peg in opposition, as a substitute for good governance, a requisite for political longevity in office. By focusing on attacking both the PMLN and PPP, instead of delivering on government, the PTI has compelled the two parties to close ranks while alienating itself from the people. More significantly, the PTI has compelled the Miltablishment to question its own judgment of backing it exclusively to pull Pakistan out of its multiple crises. Indeed, the Miltablishment now suspects that the PTI’s accountability policy may be aimed at diverting attention from its failure to address the economic crisis that is threatening to plunge Pakistan into mass discontent and chaos. Consequently, the Miltablishment has pulled back slightly, both from overtly supporting the PTI and covertly harassing the PPP and PMLN, so that it is not tarred by the developing popular backlash against the PTI for its incompetence and stupidities.

This is evidenced by the recent “relief” afforded the PPP and PTI by the same courts and judges that unleashed Miltablishment-led NAB and JITs against them in the first place. The SC has contested the ECL list of 172 notables prepared by the PTI government and scratched out the names of Asif Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto and Feryal Talpur. It has also challenged the findings of the FIA report on the money laundering case against Mr Zardari and Co. It has now rejected NAB’s plea to cancel the bail of Maryam and Nawaz Sharif in the Avenfield Flats case pending in the Islamabad High Court and warned the PTI government not to try and overthrow the PPP government in Sindh via Governor’s Rule.

To be sure, Mr Zardari’s threat to pull the plug on the Miltablishment’s plans vis a vis the PTI has also got something to do with the “relief” given to him. He was instrumental in the change of government in Balochistan and sacrificed his own candidate, Raza Rabbani, at the altar of the Senate Speaker, both at the behest of the Miltablishment. He sat back and watched the Miltablishment push the Independent MPAs in Punjab into the PTI camp so that it could form a government there. But by the same sort of leverage, he has the wherewithal to undo the PTI if he should so decide at any time.

The “Grand Opposition Alliance”, as Mr Zardari bills it, is aimed at denting the aggression of the PTI, exposing its incompetence and inefficiency and seeking relief from victimization and harassment. It is not about to move a vote of no-confidence against the PTI in Islamabad or Punjab because that would pit it against the Miltablishment too. But it intends to remain at striking distance of the PTI if the Miltablishment has a change of heart regarding the ability of Imran Khan to deliver on the strategic objectives at hand. When might such a shift occur and what shape might it take?

The Miltablishment is already grumbling about Imran Khan’s lack of leadership qualities and the PTI’s lack of management abilities. Another few months of the same fumbling and stumbling by the PTI and the Miltablishment will start developing Plan B. If Plan A was minus Nawaz and Zardari, Plan B would inevitably be minus Imran too. Among the fairer faces of any near future political engineering may be counted Bilawal Bhutto to represent the PPP, Shah Mahmood Qureshi on behalf of the PTI and Shahbaz Sharif or Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for the PMLN. The long run, of course, belongs to Bilawal Bhutto and Mariam Sharif.

As the PTI continues to falter, the air gets thicker with talk of Miltablishment blues. Is a National Government of relatively untarnished political stalwarts and technocrats on the cards? This line of thinking is likely to gather momentum if the courts under a new Chief Justice of Pakistan also start to wonder whether it is time to redress the imbalance of “Insaf” purveyed in the last year or so.