The Khan vs the opposition

The PTI (Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf), led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, seems to be in a constant state of revolution. Castigating political opponents across the board in the harshest of terms has become its perennial mantra.  

The same message permeates to the rank and file of the ruling party. All present ills are traced back to the previous government branded as downright corrupt and incompetent.

The Khan himself leads the charge. Still effusive with a sense of victory after his second dash to Riyadh, where he managed to get a much-needed financial lifeline from his beleaguered Saudi hosts, he addressed the nation on the same evening he returned.

As prime minister it was his job description to reassure the nation that possibility of an economic meltdown leading to a default has been averted. But instead of staying on the message he used the occasion to censure the opposition.

All those opposing him, according to the Khan, are corrupt and he will not spare them and eventually put them in the slammer. The prime minister alleges that these politicians are blackmailing the government for another NRO (National Reconciliation Ordinance).

Of course, former dictator Pervez Musharraf enacted the infamous NRO in October 2007, granting amnesty to politicians and bureaucrats who were accused of various crimes ranging from corruption and money laundering to terrorism.

Subsequently Benazir Bhutto and her spouse Asif Ali Zardari, followed by the Sharifs, returned from exile the same year to participate in the general elections scheduled later. According to a list released by the government in late 2009 there were 8,041 beneficiaries of the NRO consisting mostly of bureaucrats and a handful of politicians.

These included politicians belonging to the MQM, former president Asif Zardari and former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. Interestingly, personnel of the armed forces were also among those who benefited from the NRO.

After the event, the NRO was declared null and void by a 17-member full bench of the Supreme Court headed by the then Chief Justice Ifthikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Hence the question that begs an answer is how this controversial law, which was never presented in the parliament, is relevant in the present political situation.

Who is asking for an NRO and who is going to grant it? Both Sharif and Zardari have denied that they have asked to be let off the hook. The prime minister, on the other hand, has also made it amply clear that under no circumstances would he spare his opponents charged in various corruption cases.

In 2007 a military dictator was ruling the roost. Now the military, despite its immense influence, ostensibly has nothing to do with running the government. Then what is the whole rumpus (about another NRO) about?

Perhaps one can sense a bit of apprehension in the echelons of power after surefire signs that the opposition parties are closing ranks to confront the government barely two months since assuming power.

The out-of-job politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman is working overtime to bring together erstwhile foes — the PPP and the PML-N — under the umbrella of a grand alliance. The Maulana plans to have a joint show of strength of the united opposition in the coming days at an APC (All Parties Conference). Zardari, perhaps feeling that the noose around him is being tightened in the name of accountability, is quite willing to play ball with Sharif.

But the former prime minister, himself embroiled in corruption cases being heard in a bit of haste by the NAB court, seems reluctant. The fire in his belly in the immediate aftermath of his conviction in Panamagate seems to be missing now. Fazal met with Sharif in Lahore ahead of the APC to convince him to attend as well

Even post the mourning period after the demise of his wife he has preferred not to respond to political questions being posed by journalists outside the accountability court in Islamabad. Even his daughter Maryam, the firebrand heir apparent, has disappeared from the political scene. Her somewhat acerbic tweets have also virtually disappeared.

The somewhat chastised Sharif seems to be reluctant to resume his recalcitrant campaign against his political nemesis. Nor does he seem willing to take on the military like he did when he had embarked on the GT Road from Islamabad to Lahore immediately after leaving office.

This has given impetus to media speculations that some backroom mechanisation is afoot to let the Sharifs off the hook. Back in 2007 the Saudi leadership had insisted that after the return of Benazir Bhutto from exile under the controversial NRO, the Sharifs should also be allowed to return. A considerably weakened Musharraf relented.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. The Saudi heir apparent and defect ruler Mohammad bin Salman popularly referred to as MBS is not so enthusiastic about the Sharifs. In fact, the Saudi leadership was reportedly quite miffed with prime minister Sharif for not living up to his promises regarding Islamabad’s role in the Saudi putsch against the Houthi rebels in the ongoing Yemen conflict.

Conversely the Saudi leadership seems to be quite comfortable with Khan. In fact after its international isolation owing to the heinous murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, relations between Riyadh and Islamabad have somewhat warmed.

Reason for Sharif’s rather muted response in the prevailing scenario could simply be that under the changed political landscape after the general elections, he is carefully weighing his options. With the younger Sharif behind bars as well he does not have many.

In this backdrop after initial hiccups the PPP and the PML-N will eventually close ranks largely thanks to the hard line being pursued by the PTI against them. Initially the PTI had the option to play ball with Zardari who had gone along with the establishment in dislodging the PML-N-backed chief minister of Baluchistan Sardar Sanaullah Khan Zehri. Zardari also cooperated with the PTI during the elections of the chairman Senate last March.

Interestingly Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, by the dint of his increasingly scathing criticism of the opposition bordering on the personal, is proving to be the proverbial bull in a china shop. But this is Khan’s line being followed to the letter by his minions.

Every morning the prime minister has a meeting with his media managers with a few followers from the private media in tow as well. If the Khan by choice prefers to remain in the opposition mode so be it.

With his wafer-thin majority in the National l Assembly he must be fully aware of the appended consequences if the going starts getting tough. In the meanwhile, no meaningful legislation can be pushed through in the parliament. 

In the Upper House or in the eventuality of a joint sitting of the parliament the government does not enjoy a clear majority. Perhaps by choice the PTI wants to run democracy only in this manner.